Imagine using your cell phone to control the activity of your own cells to treat injuries and diseases. It looks like something from the imagination of an overly optimistic science fiction writer. But this may one day be a possibility through the emerging field of quantum biology.
In the past few decades, scientists have made incredible progress in understanding and manipulating biological systems at increasingly small scales, from protein folding to genetic engineering. And yet, the extent to which quantum effects influence living systems remains largely incomprehensible.
Quantum effects are phenomena that occur between atoms and molecules that cannot be explained by classical physics. It has been known for over a century that the laws of classical mechanics, such as Newtons laws of motion, break down at the atomic scale. Instead, tiny objects behave according to a different set of laws known as quantum mechanics.
For people, who only see the macroscopic world, or what the naked eye can see, quantum mechanics can seem counter-intuitive and somewhat magical. Things you wouldn’t expect to happen in the quantum world, like electrons tunneling through small energy barriers and appearing on the other side unscathed, or being in two different places in same time in a phenomenon called superposition.
I was trained as a quantum engineer. Research in quantum mechanics is often aimed at technology. However, and somewhat surprisingly, there is increasing evidence that nature as an engineer with billions of years of practice has learned how to use quantum mechanics to work well. If this is true, it means that our understanding of biology is incomplete. This also means that we can potentially control physiological processes by using the quantum properties of biological matter.
Quantumness in biology is probably true
Researchers can manipulate quantum phenomena to create better technology. In fact, you already live in a quantum-driven world: from laser pointers to GPS, magnetic resonance imaging and the transistors in your computer all these technologies rely on quantum effects.
In general, quantum effects only appear on very small length and mass scales, or when the temperature approaches absolute zero. This is because quantum objects such as atoms and molecules lose their volume when they are unable to interact with each other and their surroundings. In other words, a macroscopic collection of quantum objects is better described by the laws of classical mechanics. Everything that starts quantum dies classically. For example, an electron can be maneuvered to be in two places at the same time, but it ends up in only one place after a short time which is exactly what is classically expected.
In a complex, noisy biological system, it would thus be expected that most quantum effects would dissipate rapidly, washed away by what physicist Erwin Schrdinger called the cell’s hot, moist environment. For most physicists, the fact that the living world operates at high temperatures and in complex environments means that biology can be adequately and completely described by classical physics: no funky barrier crossings, no existence of many location simultaneously.
Chemists, however, have long begged to differ. Research on basic chemical reactions at room temperature clearly shows that the processes occurring within biomolecules such as proteins and genetic material are the result of quantum effects. Importantly, such nanoscopic, short quantum effects are consistent with driving some macroscopic physiological processes measured by biologists in living cells and organisms. Research suggests that quantum effects influence biological functions, including regulating enzyme activity, detecting magnetic fields, cell metabolism and electron transport in biomolecules.
How to Study Quantum Biology
The tantalizing possibility that subtle quantum effects can alter biological processes presents an exciting frontier and a challenge to scientists. The study of quantum mechanical effects in biology requires tools that can measure short time scales, small length scales and subtle differences in quantum states that produce physiological changes all over. combined within a traditional wet lab environment.
In my work, I build instruments to study and control the quantum properties of tiny objects like electrons. In the same way that electrons have mass and charge, they also have a quantum property called spin. Spin defines how electrons interact with a magnetic field, in the same way that charge defines how electrons interact with an electric field. The quantum experiments I’ve been building since graduate school, and now in my own lab, aim to use tailored magnetic fields to change the spins of particular electrons.
Research has shown that many physiological processes are influenced by weak magnetic fields. These processes include stem cell development and maturation, cell proliferation rates, genetic material repair and countless others. These physiological responses to magnetic fields are consistent with chemical reactions that depend on the spin of particular electrons within molecules. The application of a weak magnetic field to change the electron spins can thus effectively control a chemical reaction of the final products, with important physiological consequences.
Currently, the lack of understanding of how these processes work at the nanoscale level prevents researchers from determining exactly what strength and frequency of magnetic fields cause specific chemical reactions in cells. Today’s cell phone, wearable and miniaturization technologies are enough to create tailored, weak magnetic fields that change physiology, for better and for worse. The missing piece of the puzzle, therefore, is a deterministic codebook on how to map quantum factors to physiological outcomes.
In the future, improving the nature of quantum properties will enable researchers to create therapeutic devices that are non-invasive, remotely controlled and accessible with a mobile phone. Electromagnetic treatments can be used to prevent and treat disease, such as brain tumors, as well as in biomanufacturing, such as increasing meat production in the lab.
A new way of doing science
Quantum biology is one of the most interdisciplinary fields to emerge. How do you build community and train scientists to work in this area?
Since the pandemic, my lab at the University of California, Los Angeles and the University of Surreys Quantum Biology Doctoral Training Center have organized Big Quantum Biology meetings to provide an informal weekly forum for researchers to meet and share their expertise in fields such as mainstream quantum physics. , biophysics, medicine, chemistry and biology.
Research with potentially transformative implications for biology, medicine and the physical sciences should work within the same transformative model of collaboration. Working in a joint lab will allow scientists from disciplines that take very different research methods to conduct experiments that meet the breadth of quantum biology from the quantum to the molecular, the cellular and the organism.
The existence of quantum biology as a discipline means that the traditional understanding of life processes is incomplete. Further research will lead to new insights into the age-old question of what life is, how it can be controlled and how to learn with nature to create better quantum technologies.
This article is reprinted from The Conversation, a nonprofit, independent news organization that brings you facts and reliable analysis to help you make sense of our complex world. Like this article? Subscribe to our weekly newsletter.
It was written by: Clarice D. Aiello, University of California, Los Angeles.
Clarice D. Aiello has received funding from NSF, ONR, IDOR Foundation, Faggin Foundation, Templeton Foundation.
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