January 29, 2009

Quantum Biology: The Spooky NanoWorld of Molecules

2 dimensional electronic spectroscopy demonstrating wavelike quantum mechanical motion in bacteriochlorophyllWe are quite adept in solving numerical problems in our everyday ‘analog world’ using decimal rules developed by us. Digital computers, on the other hand, calculate using binary or Boolean (0, 1) rules, and then convert the result in decimal format with the help of dedicated binary to decimal converter ICs. In the molecular world, calculations ‘happen’ in a strange way.

Take for example the case of Fluorescent Resonant Energy Transfer or FRET. Also known as Forster Resonant Energy Transfer, this phenomenon is characterized by the emission of a photon of one frequency (upon stimulation) which, in turn, activates an acceptor molecule to emit a photon of another wavelength. There’s one clause that says that the first photon (from the donor molecule) will only be emitted when it can definitively be coupled with the ‘acceptor’. But in the first place, how is this ‘virtual photon’ to know whether its bride was waiting or not when it hasn’t even visited her? Yet FRET doesn’t fret, and the process goes on.

All plants use chlorophyll to trap sunlight and convert it to chemical energy in the form of carbohydrates by photosynthesis. The efficiency approximates 100%. The predominant classical approach was that the photons hopped from light capturing pigment biomolecules to the ultimate reaction center where the actual conversion was taking place. But this ‘first choose and then pick’ approach that classical physics suggested would mean considerable loss of energy as heat, as photons wasted time as they hopped down the energy ladder. Quantum mechanics bypassed this by allowing simultaneous sampling of all energy states at one go by its unique properties of ‘superposition’ and ‘entanglement’. Graham Fleming and researchers at Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory and the University of California at Berkeley showed the existence of a process of ‘quantum beating’, (a phenomenon akin to 'heterodyning’ in radio sets that is used to obtain intermediate frequencies for amplification) occurred which allowed sampling of all energy states by interference of the propagating wave. They used two-dimensional electronic spectroscopy in order to probe the sequence of events that occurred.

That the RBCs (erythrocytes), actomyosin complexes use quantum mechanics for system optimization has been established. Cellular respiration in the mitochondria, DNA, and the brain too might exploit quantum computing.

Counting without disturbing the molecule may be achieved by quantum mechanics, for it allows a molecule to know as if ‘intuitively’, the state of another molecule placed at a distance. Erwin Schrödinger, in his book 'What is Life?', opined that biological systems could be using the principles of quantum theory to maintain biological order. Sir Roger Penrose along with Stuart Hamerhoff proposed that the brain could be working as a quantum computer. In reaction to this, Max Tegmark showed that environmentally induced decoherence would foil any quantum interaction taking place. But Tegmark assumed the average kinetic energy (temperature) of the brain as 310 K (273+37). While this is true in a macroscopic world, Koichiro Matsuno has shown, using black body radiation measurements, that actomyosin complexes which are abundant in the axons of nerve cells, can reach local temperatures as low as 1.6*10-3K. It is as if nature has evolved ways to ensure decoherence free subspaces where entanglement and quantum interaction were possible. Stephen Hawking in his book 'A Brief History of Time' observed that quantum mechanics was the basis of modern biology and chemistry and the only area where quantum mechanics was not properly integrated were gravity and the large-scale structure of the universe (page 60).

To quote Ogryzko "Indeed, if it has taken Humankind only few decades to approach the use of entanglement in quantum information technology, one can wonder why Life, in billions of years of evolution, could not also learn to take advantage, finding in entanglement an alternative resource for stabilizing biological order." It seems we need an entirely different approach if we wanted to probe the mysteries of life and quantum theory is poised to help us in this regard.

P.S. I am glad that the prestigious multidisciplinary journal "NeuroQuantology" published this article with the title "The Spooky NanoWorld of Molecules" and archived it in their "arNQ Eprints and Repository". I thought I could share this with you, my readers!

ResearchBlogging.orgLast modified: Jun 29, 2010
Quantum Biology
Vasily V Ogryzko (2008). Erwin Schroedinger, Francis Crick and epigenetic stability Biology Direct, 3 (1) DOI: 10.1186/1745-6150-3-15
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