Experimentalists involved in XLIC Action have been able to observe electron motion in a biological molecule on an attosecond timescale.

The work, reported in Science, was carried out using some of the shortest laser pulses in the world which were used as strobe lighting to track the ultrafast movement of the electrons within the nanometer-sized molecule. These attosecond laser pulses were used to initially stimulate the electrons and then to observe their resulting collective oscillations which lasted for 4300 attoseconds (billion-billionths of a second), the fastest process ever observed in a biological structure.

Explaining how electrons move on the nanoscale is crucial for the understanding of a range of processes in biology as it is this charge which initiates chemical reactions. For instance the charge produced from the interaction of ionizing radiation with DNA and its subsequent ultrafast excursions is crucial in determining the resulting damage to the DNA which can result in cell death or mutations. This knowledge is important for understanding the action of radiotherapy beams in cancer treatment.  img-expsetupBeing able to describe how light interacts with electrons on these timescales could also lead to the technological improvements such as solar cells which collect electrons more efficiently or faster microprocessors which use light rather than electrical signals for switching transistors.

The attosecond laser used to measure the electron dynamics in phenylalanine was developed at the Politecnico di Milano by Professor Mauro Nisoli and the study of electrons in biomolecules has since 2012 been the product of a collaboration with Ultrafast Belfast.

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