Nature’s Quantum Code: Unraveling the Secrets of Photosynthesis

Photon Photosynthesis

Photosynthetic organisms, through intricate biochemical processes, convert light energy into life-sustaining chemical energy. A recent study confirmed that this reaction can be initiated by the absorption of a single photon, bridging the realms of quantum physics and biology. Credit: Jenny Nuss/Berkeley Lab

A cutting-edge experiment has unveiled the quantum dynamics underlying one of nature’s most essential processes.

Using a complex cast of metal-studded pigments, proteins, enzymes, and co-enzymes, photosynthetic organisms can convert the energy in light into the chemical energy for life. A study recently published in Nature has now revealed that this natural chemical process is sensitive to the smallest quantity of light possible – a single photon.

The discovery solidifies our current understanding of photosynthesis and will help answer questions about how life works on the smallest of scales, where quantum physics and biology meet.

“A huge amount of work, theoretically and experimentally, has been done around the world trying to understand what happens after a photon is absorbed. But we realized that nobody was talking about the first step. That was still a question that needed to be answered in detail,” said co-lead author Graham Fleming, a senior faculty scientist in the Biosciences Area at Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory (Berkeley Lab) and professor of chemistry at UC Berkeley.

In their study, Fleming, co-lead author Birgitta Whaley, a senior faculty scientist in the Energy Sciences Area at Berkeley Lab, and their research groups showed that a single photon can indeed initiate the first step of photosynthesis in photosynthetic purple bacteria. Because all photosynthetic organisms use similar processes and share an evolutionary ancestor, the team is confident that photosynthesis in plants and algae works the same way. “Nature invented a very clever trick,” Fleming said.

How living systems use light

Based on how efficient photosynthesis is at converting sunlight into energy-rich molecules, scientists have long assumed that a single photon was all it took to initiate the reaction, wherein photons pass energy to electrons that then trade places with electrons in different molecules, eventually creating the precursor ingredients for the production of sugars. After all, the sun doesn’t provide that many photons – only a thousand photons arrive at a single chlorophyll molecule per second on a sunny day – yet the process occurs reliably across the planet.

However, “no one had ever backed up that assumption with a demonstration,” said first author Quanwei Li, a joint postdoctoral researcher who develops new experimental techniques with quantum light in the Fleming and Whaley groups.

And, further complicating matters, a great deal of the research that has unraveled precise details about the later steps of photosynthesis was performed by triggering photosynthetic molecules with powerful, ultrafast laser pulses.

Graham Fleming and Quanwei Li

Co-senior author Graham Fleming, left, and first author Quanwei Li near some of the equipment used in their cutting-edge experiment. Credit: Henry Lam/Fleming Lab

“There’s a huge difference in intensity between a laser and sunlight – a typical focused laser beam is a million times brighter than sunlight,” said Li. Even if you manage to produce a weak beam with an intensity matching that of sunlight, they are still very different due to the quantum properties of light called photon statistics. Since no one has seen the photon get absorbed, we don’t know what difference it makes and what kind of photon it is, he explained. “But just like you need to understand each particle to build a quantum computer, we need to study the quantum properties of living systems to truly understand them, and to make efficient artificial systems that generate renewable fuels.”

Photosynthesis, like other chemical reactions, was first understood in bulk – meaning that we knew what the overall inputs and outputs were, and from that, we could infer what interactions between individual molecules might look like. In the 1970s and 80s, advances in technology allowed scientists to directly study individual chemicals during reactions. Now, scientists are beginning to explore the next frontier, the individual atom, and subatomic particle scale, using even more advanced technologies.

From assumption to fact

Designing an experiment that would allow for the observation of individual photons meant bringing together a unique team of theorists and experimentalists who combined cutting-edge tools from quantum optics and biology. “It was new for people who study photosynthesis, because they don’t normally use these tools, and it was new for people in quantum optics because we don’t normally think about applying these techniques to complex biological systems,” said Whaley, who is also a professor of chemical physics at UC Berkeley.

The scientists set up a photon source that generates a single pair of photons through a process called spontaneous parametric down-conversion. During each pulse, the first photon – “the herald” – was observed with a highly sensitive detector, which confirmed that the second photon was on its way to the assembled sample of light-absorbing molecular structures taken from photosynthetic bacteria. Another photon detector near the sample was set up to measure the lower-energy photon that is emitted by the photosynthetic structure after it absorbed the second “heralded” photon of the original pair.

The light-absorbing structure used in the experimentb called the LH2, has been studied extensively. It is known that photons at the 800 nanometers (nm) wavelength get absorbed by a ring of 9 bacteriochlorophyll molecules in LH2, causing energy to be passed to a second ring of 18 bacteriochlorophyll molecules which can emit fluorescent photons at 850 nm. In the native bacteria, the energy from the photons would continue transferring to subsequent molecules until it is used to initiate the chemistry of photosynthesis. But in the experiment, when the LH2s had been separated from other cellular machinery, the detection of the 850 nm photon served as a definitive sign that the process had been activated.

“If you’ve only got one photon, it’s awfully easy to lose it. So that was the fundamental difficulty in this experiment and that’s why we use the herald photon,” said Fleming. The scientists analyzed more than 17.7 billion herald photon detection events and 1.6 million heralded fluorescent photon detection events to ensure that the observations could only be attributed to single-photon absorption and that no other factors were influencing the results.

“I think the first thing is that this experiment has shown that you can actually do things with individual photons. So that’s a very, very important point,” said Whaley. “The next thing is, what else can we do? Our goal is to study the energy transfer from individual photons through the photosynthetic complex at the shortest possible temporal and spatial scales.”

Reference: “Single-photon absorption and emission from a natural photosynthetic complex” by Quanwei Li, Kaydren Orcutt, Robert L. Cook, Javier Sabines-Chesterking, Ashley L. Tong, Gabriela S. Schlau-Cohen, Xiang Zhang, Graham R. Fleming and K. Birgitta Whaley, 14 June 2023, Nature.
DOI: 10.1038/s41586-023-06121-5

4 Comments on "Nature’s Quantum Code: Unraveling the Secrets of Photosynthesis"

  1. Earlier The Better | August 22, 2023 at 3:14 am | Reply

    Photosynthesis in only plants? Look at Sea slug, at the spotted salamander etc., which utilize that feature with the help of algae. We miss so many features of various organisms, whether Animals or Plants. Take Mice or Monkeys. Some of them have useless tails of various sizes (unlike as 5th limb by Spider Monkey)- Langhur Monkeys with 2′ long ones. Simple Genetic action should have them without tails forever. Even though simple, it will be a great experiment. Best way is to do some experiments with several features in Bird Eggs, because they grow outside the Uterus and also hatch very fast. Monkeys have Great abdominal muscles and 4 Hands…which we lack. Tiny monkeys jump onto Kitchen Counter and fall from heights of tree branches. Monkeys can walk on their feet for short distances, once they are trained. So, it is essential to turn some small animal to photosynthesize like a plant. Once we succeed with tiny lab animals like Mouse…Then, we too can one day photosynthesize even with our own existing skin colors. We have 2 choices. yes or no. If researchers start attempting now, in distant or near future, it will be of great help. Our Brains are for achievements not for to sit and eat buffet dinners.

  2. Hemoglobin and chlorophyll are two molecules that have a very similar structure and composition, however the central atom in hemoglobin is iron and the central atom in chlorophyll is magnesium.
    Might there be some similarities in both their abilities to utilize light in ways we do not understand. There are now more and more devices using light as a motivator of the healing processes of the body. Light therapy has been used for thousands of years, look it up.

  3. BibhutibhusanPatel | August 23, 2023 at 2:28 am | Reply

    In overall,at present the experimental demonstration is good and reliable to propagate.

  4. BibhutibhusanPatel | August 23, 2023 at 2:41 am | Reply

    The Principl of Thermodynamic photon – Quantum mechanical Oscillation,can has a basic support to this experimentation with perfect data.

Leave a comment

Email address is optional. If provided, your email will not be published or shared.