Genetic mutation quenches quantum quirk in algae

A quantum effect may help photosynthetic algae called cryptophytes harvest light more efficiently. A genetic mutation can turn off the effect, giving scientists an opportunity to determine how important quantum phenomena are for creatures' lives.


The quirks of the quantum world usually reveal themselves in the precisely controlled conditions of a physics lab. But hints of their effects have been found in everything from bacteria to birds, leaving scientists scratching their heads about whether quantum phenomena play more than a trivial role in the natural world.

Scientists have now found that a genetic mutation in cryptophyte algae quenches a quantum effect thought to help the algae harvest light more efficiently. The effect, called quantum coherence, could allow incoming energy from the sun to test all possible paths to reach one of the algae’s photosynthesis reaction centers. The test would be done before traveling so the energy could pick the quickest route.

Comparing the algae that have the quantum coherence capability switched off to those that have it turned on could reveal how important the effect is in harvesting light, the team suggests June 16 in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. The comparison could also lead to better organic solar cells and electronic devices based on quantum phenomena.

For more on quantum effects in the natural world, read SN‘s Living Physics feature.

Ashley Yeager is the associate news editor at Science News. She has worked at The Scientist, the Simons Foundation, Duke University and the W.M. Keck Observatory, and was the web producer for Science News from 2013 to 2015. She has a bachelor’s degree in journalism from the University of Tennessee, Knoxville, and a master’s degree in science writing from MIT.

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