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14

Lab Times

1-2016

Analysis

Thought you understood photosynthesis, bird migration and olfaction? Think again, as quantum biologists reveal the

true processes that drive these biological phenomena.

The Final Frontier

Quantum biology

when physics meets biology

Photo: Forolia/Ezume Images

I

nmany ways, saying that quantumphys-

ics plays a role in biology is stating the

obvious. Down at the molecular and

atomic level, all chemical reactions – even

those occurring during biological processes

– can be studied under a ‘quantum’ umbrel-

la. However, on a scale that has a real physi-

ological impact, biology and physics haven’t

been able to peacefully co-exist side-by-side,

and quantummechanics has been a concept

impossible to integrate into life sciences.

To the average physicist, the fragile

states of matter predicted by quantum me-

chanics can only be replicated in the lab un-

der the stringiest conditions: well-isolated

reactions conducted at freezing tempera-

tures. The notion that biology – warm, wet

and messy – can accommodate these effects

seemed ludicrous. Nature, as it turns out

is perfectly capable of playing host to such

mechanisms. In fact, not only do quantum

effects exist but researchers now believe

they are absolutely essential for some bio-

logical processes.

“It was really surprising to find a quan-

tum effect and I think that’s one of the rea-

sons why it has attracted so much attention.

It’s really a scientific discovery that I think

no one would have predicted,” says Yasser

Omar, coordinator of the Physics of Infor-

mation Group at the University of Lisbon,

Portugal. “If you’d asked anyone ten years

ago whether biological processes could in-

volve quantummechanics in anything more

than a trivial way, I don’t know who would

have been more sceptical – the biologists

or the physicists,” jokes Zachary Walters,

a quantum physicist formerly based at the

Max Planck Institute for Physics of Complex

Systems in Dresden, Germany.

How is it even possible?

Despite the idea behind quantum biol-

ogy being jostled around for many years, it

was nothing more than speculation from

a few researchers often seen as eccentric.

However, it all changed in 2007, when Gra-

ham Fleming and his team based at the

University of California, Berkeley, final-

ly managed to confirm the existence of

quantum processes in one biological sys-

tem in particular: photosynthesis. To every-

one’s surprise, they observed that the con-

version from light energy to chemical en-

ergy occurs in a wave-like manner, main-

taining its quantum properties (

Nature

,

446(7137):782-6).

Since then, a few other mechanisms

have been added to the list, including the

birds’ ability to find their way to warmer cli-

mates during their annual migrations and

our knack to identify hundreds of differ-

ent smells. At this stage, the million euro

question is, how is this even possible? Given

that physicists still struggle to manipulate

quantum effects, even in seemingly perfect

conditions, how can they survive in such a

“harsh” natural environment?

An easy and superficial answer relies

on speed. At the molecular level, quantum

processes are fast and localised and, as it all

happens in the ‘blink of an eye’, the environ-