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Ultrafast electron dynamics in an aminoacid

Several european researchers have been able to induce and observe the ultrafast motion of electrons in a biomolecule (the aminoacid phenylalanine) on an attosecond timescale.

Charge migration in molecules precedes structural rearrangements which are the basis of many biological processes. According to the results presented, charge migration from one end of the phenylalanine molecule to the other takes around 3-4 femtoseconds (one femtosecond = 1.000 attoseconds). This is the fastest process ever observed in a biological structure.

The numerical simulations carried out allowed those researchers to identify, unambiguously, that this fast charge migration  is solely due to the electronic motion of the electrons induced by the attosecond pulse, rather than to structural changes. The ability to provoke and observe purely electronic dynamics in biomolecules is crucial for future applications in attosecond science. This charge migration may, as an example, initiate a chemical reaction.

The work, published in Science on October 17th, results from a theoretical/experimental collaboration among researchers involved in the ERC funded projects XCHEM (Universidad Autónoma de Madrid) and ELYCHE (Politecnico di Milano), and from the Ultrafast group at Queen’s University of Belfast, the Theoretical Chemistry group at the Università di Trieste and the Attosecond Physics Group at the Institute of Photonics and Nanotechnologies IFN-CNR of Milano and Padova.

This information has appeared in several institutional websites (UAM, IMDEA-Nanoscience, QUB-Ulfrafast-group, Politecnico de Milano, CNR, IFN-CNR, who also published press releases (UAM, IMDEA-Nanoscience, Polimi and QUB).

Several media have echoed the news, appearing articles in scientific news’ agencies (SINC, Madrimasd), learned societies of chemistry and physics, european research networks (XLIC), digital media (Tendencias Cientificas, Amazing NCyT, BetaWired, Ideal, Solociencia), specialized blogs (Blog in Bio-Science+Technology), newsletters (COST CM1204 Action Newsletter nº3, Boletín campus UAM+CSIC), radio (Radio Exterior-RNE, Radio5-RNE, Radio San Vicente), YouTube (uam-csic channel) and social networks (UCC-UAM, UAM-Gazette.Twitter – SINC, XLIC, etc).

Following the press release published at Queen’s University of Belfast, several English-written online sites have highlighted the importance of the work, “the fastest process ever observed in a biological structure”, “a groundbreaking discovery that has implications for understanding how radiotherapy kills cancer cells” (see PhysOrgScienceDaily, Chemistry2011Nanotechnology NewsH202UK)


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