Photosynthetic light harvesting: excitons and coherence

J R Soc Interface. 2013 Dec 18;11(92):20130901. doi: 10.1098/rsif.2013.0901. Print 2014 Mar 6.


Photosynthesis begins with light harvesting, where specialized pigment-protein complexes transform sunlight into electronic excitations delivered to reaction centres to initiate charge separation. There is evidence that quantum coherence between electronic excited states plays a role in energy transfer. In this review, we discuss how quantum coherence manifests in photosynthetic light harvesting and its implications. We begin by examining the concept of an exciton, an excited electronic state delocalized over several spatially separated molecules, which is the most widely available signature of quantum coherence in light harvesting. We then discuss recent results concerning the possibility that quantum coherence between electronically excited states of donors and acceptors may give rise to a quantum coherent evolution of excitations, modifying the traditional incoherent picture of energy transfer. Key to this (partially) coherent energy transfer appears to be the structure of the environment, in particular the participation of non-equilibrium vibrational modes. We discuss the open questions and controversies regarding quantum coherent energy transfer and how these can be addressed using new experimental techniques.

Keywords: coherence; energy transfer; exciton; light harvesting.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't
  • Research Support, U.S. Gov't, Non-P.H.S.
  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Energy Transfer / physiology*
  • Light*
  • Light-Harvesting Protein Complexes / metabolism*
  • Light-Harvesting Protein Complexes / physiology
  • Models, Chemical*
  • Photosynthesis / physiology*
  • Pigments, Biological / metabolism*
  • Quantum Theory


  • Light-Harvesting Protein Complexes
  • Pigments, Biological