Quantum Biology Could Revolutionize Our Understanding of How Life Works

Consider utilizing your smartphone to regulate your own cells' activity to cure illnesses and injuries. It sounds like something out of a sci-fi author's excessively hopeful imagination. But thanks to the developing study of quantum biology, this may be a reality in the future.

The knowledge and control of biological processes at ever-smaller dimensions, from protein folding to genetic engineering, have advanced tremendously during the past several decades. However, little is known about how much quantum effects affect biological systems.

It is impossible for conventional physics to describe the processes that take place between atoms and molecules, known as quantum effects. The Newtonian laws of motion and other principles of classical mechanics are known to fail at atomic sizes for more than a century. Quantum mechanics is a separate set of principles that governs how small objects act.

Quantum physics might appear illogical and even mystical to humans since they can only view the macroscopic, or visible to the unaided eye, world. In the quantum realm, things that you would not anticipate happen, such as superposition—the state of being in two locations at once—or electrons "tunneling" past minute energy barriers and emerging undamaged on the other side.

I have a background in quantum engineering. The focus of quantum mechanics research is typically technology. Nevertheless, and perhaps surprisingly, there is mounting proof that nature, an engineer with billions of years of experience, has mastered the art of utilizing quantum physics to its full potential. If this is accurate, it shows how drastically inadequate our knowledge of biology is. It also implies that using the quantum characteristics of biological matter, we could be able to influence physiological processes.

The Possibility of Quantum Biology Researchers have the ability to control quantum events in order to develop more advanced technologies. You really already live in a quantum-powered world because of the transistors in your computer, GPS, magnetic resonance imaging, laser pointers, and more.

Generally speaking, quantum effects only become visible at incredibly short length and mass scales or when temperatures are getting close to zero. This is due to the fact that when quantum things, such as atoms and molecules, interact with one another and their surroundings erratically, they lose their "quantumness". In other words, the principles of classical mechanics are more appropriate for describing a macroscopic grouping of quantum particles. Anything that begins as quantum ends up as classical. An electron, for instance, may be made to be in two locations at once, but after a brief period of time, it will only be in one place, as is predicted conventionally.

It is therefore anticipated that most quantum effects will quickly vanish in a complex, noisy biological system, washed out in what physicist Erwin Schrödinger dubbed the "warm, wet environment of the cell." According to the majority of physicists, the fact that the living world functions at high temperatures and in complicated circumstances means that biology can be completely and accurately represented by classical physics: no weird barrier-crossing, no existing in two places at once.

But chemists have argued the opposite for a very long time. There is no doubt that activities taking place within biomolecules like proteins and genetic material are the product of quantum effects, according to research on elementary chemical reactions happening at ambient temperature. It is significant because these microscopic, transient quantum effects are consistent with regulating several macroscopic physiological processes that scientists have observed in living cells and creatures. According to research, quantum effects have an impact on a variety of biological processes, such as controlling the activity of enzymes, detecting magnetic fields, cell metabolism, and electron transport in biomolecules.

Learning Quantum Biology

Scientists are faced with both an intriguing new frontier and a challenging problem as a result of the tempting prospect that minute quantum effects might modify biological processes. Tools that can quantify the brief time scales, tiny length scales, and minute variations in quantum states that give rise to physiological changes—all integrated inside a conventional wet lab environment—are necessary for studying quantum mechanical effects in biology.

In my line of work, I create tools for seeing and manipulating the quantum characteristics of tiny objects like electrons. In addition to having mass and charge, electrons also have a third quantum attribute called spin. Similar to how charge determines how electrons interact with an electric field, spin determines how electrons interact with a magnetic field. I've been doing quantum experiments in my own lab since graduate school with the goal of using specialized magnetic fields to alter the spins of specific electrons.

Many physiological processes are impacted by mild magnetic fields, according to research. Many different processes fall within this category, such as the growth and maturity of stem cells, cell proliferation rates, genetic material repair, etc. The chemical processes that depend on the spin of certain electrons within molecules are compatible with these physiological responses to magnetic fields. Thus, the end products of a chemical process may be successfully controlled by changing the electron spins using a mild magnetic field, with significant physiological repercussions.

Researchers are now unable to pinpoint precisely what magnetic field intensity and frequency trigger particular chemical reactions in cells due to a lack of understanding of how such processes function at the nanoscale level. The capabilities of today's mobile phone, wearable, and miniaturized technologies are already enough to create customized, weak magnetic fields that alter physiology in both positive and negative ways. Therefore, a "deterministic codebook" of how to translate quantum causes to physiological consequences is the final piece of the jigsaw.

In the future, researchers may be able to create non-invasive, remote-control, cell phone-accessible medicinal devices by fine-tuning nature's quantum qualities. Potential applications for electromagnetic therapies include the prevention and treatment of illnesses like brain tumors as well as biomanufacturing processes like boosting the production of lab-grown meat.

A Completely New Approach to Science

One of the most multidisciplinary subjects to ever develop is quantum biology. How are communities created and scientists trained to operate in this field?

Since the pandemic, my lab at the University of California, Los Angeles and the Quantum Biology Doctoral Training Centre at the University of Surrey have organized Big Quantum Biology meetings to offer a relaxed weekly forum for researchers to connect and exchange knowledge in disciplines like mainstream quantum physics, biophysics, medicine, chemistry, and biology.

Working within an equally transformational model of cooperation will be necessary for research that might have profound effects on biology, medicine, and the physical sciences. Working together in a single lab would enable researchers from many fields to undertake studies that cover the full range of quantum biology, from the quantum to the molecular, cellular, and organismal.

The presence of quantum biology as a field suggests that our current comprehension of how life functions is insufficient. New insights into the age-old issues of what life is, how to govern it, and how to use nature's learning processes to improve quantum technology will come from further study.