"By 2050 we could replace nuclear and fossil energy with renewable sources, including photosynthetic algae. The challenge lies in finding the courage to pursue this dream."
(VU University Amsterdam's 130th anniversary, 2011)
My name is Rienk van Grondelle. I was born on december 6, 1949. My father was Marinus van Grondelle, my mother Renske Vlietstra. I attended the highschool in Hilversum (Christelijk Lyceum in het Gooi) between 1962 and 1967 and decided to study experimental physics at the Vrije Universiteit in Amsterdam. During my study I got increasingly convinced by the idea that I wanted to explore the relation between physics and life. As a student I went to the medical faculty and discovered that there were physicists everywhere, but we as students did not know about them. I organized my experimental work with Nico Westerhof and Piet Sipkema, two physicists working in the department of physiology on the mechanics of bloodflow. I finished my study in 1973 and applied for a position as a PhD-student in the biophysics group in Leiden headed by Lou Duysens. The subject of their work was the study of photosynthesis, they used advanced spectroscopic techniques and were world-leading in their field. For me photosynthesis became the scientific love of my life and since I joined Duysens I have been actively working in this area. In 1983 I returned to Amsterdam, in 1987 I became a full professor of Biophysics at the VU, a position I still hold. In my time I have been very lucky, the structures of many of the major pigment-proteins of photosynthesis were resolved: the bacterial reaction center, the bacterial light-harvesting complex, the plant reaction centers and the plant light-harvesting complexes. The tools of molecular biology became available and together with Neil Hunter in Sheffield we explored many of the possibilities. Finally, in the 70s ultrafast lasers became available that allowed me to study the first events of photosynthesis that occur on a timescale of picoseconds (1 picosecond is 10-12 seconds) together with Villy Sundström (now in Lund, Sweden). Over the years I have built a very successful research group in Amsterdam using these tools. Today, we are still in the process of trying to understand the physical basis of photosynthesis. Although we have obtained a clear picture of the sequence of events that takes place after the photosynthetic apparatus absorbs a solar photon, the underlying physical phenomena are not clear at all. In November 2010 the European Research Council gave me 3 million euro's to figure out whether the proteins to which the photosynthetic pigments (chlorophyll, carotenoids) are bound play an active role in the success of photosynthesis. I am in the process of finishing this project together with Bruno Robert in Paris and we got a long way! In 2014 we discovered the role of mixed electronic and vibrational coherences in driving charge separation in the plant Photosystem2 reaction center (Romero et al, Nature Physics 2014) and we are building on this knowledge to unveil the ‘Quantum Design of Photosynthesis’.