Inside the interior of a football-sized laboratory at the University of California at Berkeley, Graham Fleming and his colleagues in the biology department have set up the scientific equivalent of a pinball machine.
Numerous precision lasers, which pulse out light at millions of a billionth of a second, are placed in various strategic points, trained onto an obstacle course of mirrors and glass lenses, themselves aimed at a tiny solitary black box.
Once the lasers are switched on, the light generated by these ultra-fast light beams will careen off each mirror and lens before shooting inside and alighting on the box’s contents: a tiny sampling of a green sulfur bacteria.
The light from the lasers is supposed to mimic the sun, for this type of bacteria, for all intents and purposes, is a plant, with the same extraordinary photosynthetic ability to convert sunlight into energy inside its cells.
By tracking the means by which a rudimentary living thing harnesses the power of the sun, converts it into energy, and expels oxygen as a byproduct, British-born Fleming hopes to solve the central mystery of plants — their ruthless efficiency.
The miracle is not only the fact that the plant can manage this feat at all, but also that it does so without losing so much as 5 per cent of the solar energy that comes its way.
The most sophisticated machine on earth cannot begin to mimic the energy conversion of a plant. Every manmade activity of rough equivalence diminishes the initial store of energy by more than 20 per cent in the process of transforming from one type of energy to another. If humans could learn to capture and transform solar energy through even a crude approximation of the manner in which plants do, mankind’s future energy needs would be forever secure.
The other aspect of the mystery is more rudimentary: how a simple living system like a plant can derive the world’s oxygen and carbohydrates from light.
Follow the electron
The key to studying this extraordinary process lies in tracking the path of electrons inside the protein scaffolding of the cell, which connect the bacteria’s exterior solar panels, or chlorosomes, the harvesters of sunlight, to reaction centers at the heart of the cells — the tiny crucible where the miracle of conversion takes place.
Fleming’s experiment takes a tiny fraction of the time it takes to blink an eyelid. As soon as the pulsed light from the lasers hits the protein, it excites — and thus dislocates -— electrons, which then need to find the most direct route along their tiny protein scaffolding ‘track’ to the reaction centers. This is a complex and potentially time-consuming task, according to conventional physics, as there are many possible pathways and endpoints that the electron would have to seek out and eliminate, one by one.
What Fleming has discovered is nothing less than a giant chink in the entire edifice of accepted biology. Rather than a single pathway, the electrons reach their target by trying out several routes simultaneously. Only when the final connection is made and the end of the road reached does the electron track its most efficient path retroactively and the energy follow that single path.
It appears as if the optimum route were chosen backwards in time — after all possibilities had been exhausted. It is as if a person lost in a labyrinth had tried out all possible pathways all at the same time, and after finally discovering the correct pathway to the exit, eliminated all trace of his rehearsals.
Fleming’s discovery is a wholly unexpected answer to his line of inquiry: the plant is so efficient because its messenger electrons are able to occupy more than one location at the same time.
The new rules of the game
Fleming is making some of the first tentative forays into what has been called ‘quantum biology’ — producing the first evidence that life on earth is driven by the laws of quantum physics.
With his background in physics as well as biology, Fleming realizes the import of what he has just witnessed. As Danish physicist Niels Bohr, one of the founders of quantum theory, first discovered in the early part of the twentieth century, subatomic particles like electrons or photons by themselves aren’t an actual anything yet.
Atoms are not little solar systems of billiard balls but rather a messy little cloud of probability. They exist in many places simultaneously, in a state of pure potential — or, as physicists refer to it, “superposition” — the sum of all probabilities.
A subatomic particle like those in Fleming’s bacteria essentially experiments with this pathway and then that pathway at the same time before choosing the optimum path to the reaction site.
If the results of Fleming’s experiment are verified, it will mean that the most fundamental process of the universe — the process responsible for life on earth — is driven by a quantum mechanism, a thing that isn’t actually anything at all, at least according to our usual definition of things.
Scientists have explained away the weird effects of quantum physics by arguing that there is one set of rules for the world of the tiny and another for the sticks-and-stones world of the large.
Fleming’s experiment lays bare another possibility: big things in the universe like plants also operate according to the strange rules of the quantum. Which means, quite simply, that there is simply one rulebook for all of life.
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