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Systems that obey quantum mechanics are notoriously difficult to visualize, but researchers at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign have developed an illustration technique that shows quantum features in an easy-to-read diagram called a coherence map. The researchers used these maps to study the quantum mechanisms underlying photosynthesis, the process by which plants and some bacteria use sunlight to convert carbon dioxide and water into food.
“It was hard to believe how simple the coherence maps were,” said Nancy Makri, a chemistry professor at the University of I. and the project leader. “When dealing with non-intuitive quantum phenomena as part of complex processes like photosynthesis, interpreting theoretical calculations can be a real challenge. But coherence maps tell you everything you need to know in a snapshot.”
In a study published in The journal of physical chemistry letters, Makri’s research team applied coherence maps to analyze previous computer simulations of photosynthesizing bacteria in a new way. The researchers studied the molecular complex that ‘harvests’ sunlight, absorbing it and transferring its energy to a chemical reaction site where carbon dioxide and water are processed. The coherence maps not only clearly showed how energy was transferred to the reaction site, they provided a clear quantum explanation for the transfer.
Makri explained that coherence maps are illustrations of the reduced density matrix, a mathematical object that contains all the information about the quantum behavior of a system. “Even for modestly sized systems, the low-density array becomes quite large and all of its components are interconnected,” she said. “That’s just too much information to analyze. With coherence maps, however, there’s a lot of information that jumps out of the images just at first glance.”
This information allowed the researchers to identify energy transfer pathways in the bacterial light-harvesting complex “in a very transparent way,” according to Makri. The complex contains an outer ring and an inner ring of molecules. The outer ring absorbs the sunlight and the inner ring contains the chemical reaction site. Makri’s group showed that the two rings are connected by the motions of atoms in the molecules, and coherence maps clearly showed that these motions concentrate energy from the outer to the inner ring.
“Looking forward, I believe coherence maps will be a valuable tool for theoretical analyzes based on quantum mechanics,” Makri said. “In this very study, they provided important insights into the mechanism of photosynthesis, one of the great mysteries of biology.”
Makri’s research group reported simulations of the energy transfer mechanism in photosynthetic bacteria in Science Advances, and the group introduced coherence maps in The Journal of Physical Chemistry B.
Reshmi Dani et al, Coherence maps and excitation energy flux in bacterial light-harvesting complex 2, The journal of physical chemistry letters (2023). DOI: 10.1021/acs.jpclett.3c00670
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Letter Journal of Physical Chemistry
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