Quantum Physics Proposes A New Way To Study Biology – And The Results Could Revolutionize Our Understanding Of How Life Works
- Clarice D. Aiello writes about the promise of quantum biology in The Conversation.
- Aiello heads the Quantum Biology Tech (QuBiT) Lab and is Assistant Professor of Electrical and Computer Engineering, University of California.
- Critical Quote: “…there is increasing evidence that nature – an engineer with billions of years of practice – has learned how to use quantum mechanics to function optimally. If this is true, it means that our understanding of biology is radically incomplete. It also means that we may be able to control physiological processes using the quantum properties of biological matter.” — Clarice D. Aiello
CONVERSATIONS — Imagine using your cell phone to control the activity of your own cells to treat injuries and illnesses. It sounds like something from the imagination of an overly optimistic sci-fi writer. But this may one day become a possibility through the emerging field of quantum biology.
Over the last few decades, scientists have made tremendous advances in understanding and manipulating biological systems on increasingly smaller scales, from protein folding to genetic engineering. However, the extent to which quantum effects affect living systems is still elusive.
Quantum effects are phenomena that occur between atoms and molecules that cannot be explained by classical physics. It has been known for more than a century that the rules of classical mechanics, such as Newton’s laws of motion, break down on the atomic scale. Instead, tiny objects behave according to a different set of laws known as quantum mechanics.
To humans, who can only see the macroscopic world, or what is visible to the naked eye, quantum mechanics can seem counterintuitive and somewhat magical. Things you might not expect to happen in the quantum world, such as electrons “tunneling” through a small energy barrier and emerging on the other side unharmed, or being in two different places at the same time in a phenomenon called superposition.
I trained as quantum engineer. Research in quantum mechanics is usually geared toward technology. However, and somewhat surprisingly, there is growing evidence that nature – an engineer with billions of years of practice – has learned how use quantum mechanics to function optimally. If this is true, it means that our understanding of biology is radically incomplete. It also means that we may be able to control physiological processes using the quantum properties of biological matter.
Quantumness in biology may be real
Researchers can manipulate quantum phenomena to build better technologies. In fact, you already live in a quantum powered world: from laser pointers to GPS, magnetic resonance imaging and the transistors in your computer – all of these technologies rely on quantum effects.
In general, quantum effects only manifest on very small length and mass scales, or when the temperature is close to absolute zero. This is due to quantum objects like atoms and molecules lose their “quantity”. when they uncontrollably interact with each other and their environment. In other words, a collection of macroscopic quantum objects is better described by the laws of classical mechanics. Everything that starts with a quantum dies classically. For example, an electron can be manipulated to be in two places at the same time, but it will end up in only one place after a while – exactly what is classically expected.
In complex and noisy biological systems, it would be expected that most quantum effects would quickly dissipate, being swept away in what physicist Erwin Schrödinger calls the “warm, wet environment of the cell”. For most physicists, the fact that the living world operates at high temperatures and in complex environments implies that biology can be adequately and completely described by classical physics: no funky barrier crossings, no existence in multiple locations simultaneously.
However, chemists have long pleaded for a different opinion. Research on basic chemical reactions at room temperature clearly shows that processes occurring in biomolecules such as proteins and genetic material are the result of quantum effects. Importantly, such short-lived and nanoscopic quantum effects are consistent with driving some of the macroscopic physiological processes that biologists have measured in living cells and organisms. Research shows that quantum effects affect biological functions, including regulating enzyme activity, sensing magnetic fields, cell metabolism, and electron transport in biomolecules.
How to study quantum biology
The tantalizing possibility that subtle quantum effects can tweak biological processes presents both an interesting frontier and a challenge for scientists. Studying quantum mechanical effects in biology requires tools that can measure short time scales, small long scales, and the subtle differences in quantum states that give rise to physiological changes – all integrated in a traditional wet lab environment.
In my line of work, I build instruments to study and control the quantum properties of small objects like electrons. In the same way electrons have mass and charge, they also have a quantum property called spin. Spin determines how electrons interact with magnetic fields, in the same way charge determines how electrons interact with electric fields. The quantum experiment I’ve been building since grad school, and now in my own lab, aims to apply a magnetic field adjusted to change the spin of a particular electron.
Research has shown that many physiological processes are affected by weak magnetic fields. These processes include the development and maturation of stem cells, the rate of cell proliferation, the repair of genetic material and many others. This physiological response to a magnetic field is consistent with chemical reactions that depend on the specific spins of electrons in molecules. Applying a weak magnetic field to change the spin of electrons can effectively control the end products of chemical reactions, with important physiological consequences.
Currently, a lack of understanding of how the process works at the nanoscale level prevents researchers from pinpointing exactly what magnetic field strengths and frequencies cause certain chemical reactions in cells. Today’s cell phones, wearable technology and miniaturization are enough to produce tailored weak magnetic fields that alter physiology, both for good and for bad. The missing piece of the puzzle is therefore a “deterministic code book” on how to map quantum causation to physiological outcomes.
In the future, improvements to nature’s quantum nature could allow researchers to develop therapeutic devices that are non-invasive, remote-controlled, and accessible with cell phones. Electromagnetic treatment has potential for use in preventing and treating diseases, such as brain tumors, as well as in biomanufacturing, such as increasing the production of laboratory-produced meat.
A new way of doing science
Quantum biology is one of the most interdisciplinary fields to ever emerge. How do you build community and train scientists to work in this field?
Since the pandemic, my lab at the University of California, Los Angeles and the University of Surrey Doctoral Quantum Biology Training Center have hosted the Big Quantum Biology meeting to provide a weekly informal forum for researchers to meet and share their expertise in areas such as mainstream quantum physics, biophysics, medicine, chemistry and biology.
Research with potentially transformative implications for the biological, medical, and physical sciences will require working together in an equally transformative collaborative model. Working in one unified lab will allow scientists from disciplines who take widely different research approaches to conduct experiments that cover the breadth of quantum biology from quantum to molecular, cellular, and organismal.
The existence of quantum biology as a discipline implies that the traditional understanding of life processes is incomplete. Further research will lead to new insights into the age-old questions of what life is, how life can be controlled, and how to learn with nature to build better quantum technologies.