I have to post about this. Not just because the prof researches at my alma mater (although it is certainly nice to know that U of T isn’t just funding the hugely profitable sciences – for now…).

No. As difficult as this is proving to describe, I must post. Because it is truly cool.

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We know that all life on earth depends on the sun for all its energy (except for bad-ass deep sea animals that live off the energy in hot vents of hydrogen sulphide and crazy undersea methane lakes). But now chemists have shown that you can actually control the way a protein works by changing the timing of beams of light you shoot at it.

Or, as they put it: “Optical control of the primary step of photoisomerization of the retinal molecule in bacteriorhodopsin from the all-trans to the 13-cis state was demonstrated under weak field conditions (where only 1 of 300 retinal molecules absorbs a photon during the excitation cycle) that are relevant to understanding biological processes”

Right – what they said.

Bear with me now. Here it is as simply as I can put it: they used lasers to shoot photons of light at molecules of bacteriorhodopsin, a protein found in some bacteria that reacts with light (it’s very similar to the stuff we have at the back of our eyes which take in sunlight and allow us to see). By changing the speed of the bursts of light, they could change how the molecules bent and moved – faster pulses would make it bend differently. This might not sound impressive – but the study got the front cover of Science, one of the top two science journals in the world. No one has ever shown this before… or even really thought that it was possible.

This all has to do with quantum mechanics and other concepts in particle physics that literally make my brain hurt, including the idea that light can act like a particle and a wave at the same time (all of which I am pretty much incapable of really understanding or explaining – here, I’ll let Wikipedia do my job).

Basically the coolness factor boils down to this: the influence that light has on life could be far, far more complex than we can even imagine.

Or, as the study’s lead author, Professor Valentyn Prokhorenko endearingly told Seed magazine, “We are all children of the sun.”

…I love it when scientists get all poetic on us.

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