Quantum biology comes of age

Quantum phenomena appears to play a role in the retinas of migrating birds. Credit Barth Bailey @Unsplash

Fifteen years ago, a colleague of mine in the Molecular Biology Department at Surrey by the name of Johnjoe McFadden was brave enough to give a seminar on quantum mechanics to my Physics Department. He wanted to toss around an idea, which he proposed could explain a phenomenon known to take place in E. coli bacteria, called adaptive mutations, whereby the bacteria mutates preferentially as a direct response to selective pressures from its environment, and which it can only make use of after it has mutated. This sort of surprising, almost teleological, process is in contrast to mainstream evolutionary theory, which holds that mutagenesis occurs randomly. Johnjoe proposed that there might be a quantum mechanical explanation – for example that quantum tunnelling of protons in hydrogen bonds in DNA might play a role in mutagenesis. Most of my colleagues were far from convinced by his arguments.

I, on the other hand, was hooked. Well, I was certainly intrigued enough to want to discuss the matter further with Johnjoe McFadden. This we did, and ended up publishing a speculative and rather hand-wavy paper on adaptive mutations and quantum mechanics in the journal Biosystems the following year.

Our research discussions, between 1998 and 2012, were almost entirely conducted in the coffee bars of the University of Surrey campus. We had no funding, no research students to carry out the work – both Johnjoe’s experiments with E. coli and my numerical calculations (computing) and just one peer reviewed journal paper. There were isolated occasions when it looked like we were making real progress: we were invited to present our ideas at an origins of life workshop at NASA Ames in California, organised by the physicist, Paul Davies, and which led to us writing a chapter in a book, but by and large, I think we both felt that this was not much more than a fun foray into a speculative and controversial field at the limits of respectable science, but still not much more than a distraction from our more serious and familiar research fields. In any case, I knew as well as anyone just how ready people without an understanding of quantum mechanics tend to be in ascribing to it all sorts of pseudoscientific new age nonsense, from an explanation of human consciousness or homeopathy to extrasensory perception and psychic ability.

And yet, here was a potentially new field of research, bringing together quantum physics, organic chemistry and molecular biology, in which there were still very few active researchers. You see – and to a large extent this is still true today – physicists are reluctant to believe that the tenuous rules of quantum mechanics can play a role in the warm and complex environment of a living cell, whereas biologists… well, many biologists simply do not believe quantum mechanics and prefer their balls-and-sticks models of molecular structure.

But it is fair to say that a few years ago, the field suddenly burst into life. For a number of years biologists had been conducting evermore careful and precise experiments that are allowing them to study biological processes down at the molecular level, by using spectroscopic techniques developed by physicists and chemists over many years. Add to this the recent publicity surrounding quantum phenomena that appear to play a major role in a range of biological mechanism, from photosynthesis and olfaction to magneto-reception in the retinas of migrating birds, and suddenly it seems quantum biology has come of age. Johnjoe and I are now part of a growing community of physicists, chemists and biologists, carrying out serious research in an exciting new field. But at the back of our minds, we can’t help wonder whether we should have been more courageous a decade ago, when the field was clearer.

Jim Al-Khalili

Jim is a theoretical physicist, author and broadcaster, Professor of Theoretical Physics and Chair in the Public Engagement in Science at the University of Surrey.

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