Plants Do Quantum Physics, Vegetables Smarter Than Us Apparently

Do plants use quantum physics to make better choices? Quantum biology has been a rather iffy topic in science in the past. However, a new study published Friday in the journal Science has provided support for the idea that quantum effects can work on the scale of living things.

The Institute of Photonic Sciences worked with researchers from Scotland’s University of Glasgow to show that quantum mechanisms may be used to make photosynthesis work more efficiently. In their statement, they said that they were challenged to answer this question:

“In less than a couple of trillionths of a second, 95 percent of the sunlight they absorb is whisked away to drive the metabolic reactions that provide them with energy. The efficiency of photovoltaic cells currently on the market is around 20 percent. What hidden mechanism does nature use to transfer energy so efficiently?”

I’m going to assume that if you’re reading this, you’re not a plant with a natural gift for quantum physics.

Therefore, I’m going to explain this discovery in very simple language. Any daisies out there reading this, well, I apologize in advance for the oversimplification. So here goes.

When plants feed themselves from sunlight using photosynthesis, the light is captured by antenna proteins. According to the new research, these proteins actually behave like quantum machines that make quick decisions to guide the light on its most efficient pathway.

Lead researcher Niek van Hulst told BBC News that a light particle, called a photon, has many possible paths when it is first “eaten” by the green leaf of a plant. “Where does it go? It goes to the one that’s most efficient, the one where this quantum effect tells you it has the highest probability [of being put to use to feed the plant],” he explained.

“The result is that this fluffy stuff at room temperature where everything is variable, it just works – with an efficiency of 90 percent — way, way better than any solar cell we can make ourselves.”

However, other researchers advise caution. As you might guess, some people want a little more evidence that plants use quantum physics to make these decisions.

vegetation satellite images
world map from vegetation satellite image project

[vegetation satellite map NASA, NOAA]
[flower photo by Elaine Radford]