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Quantum Biology | Explained by Jim Al-Khalili

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Prof. Jim-Al-Khalili explains the emerging field of quantum biology and discusses how this new discipline has developed from its inception in the 1920s until fruition in the late 1990s with the discovery of quantum effects in magnetoreception, olfaction, enzyme catalysis, and photosynthesis.

Download article from the Scientific Video Protocols website:

0:00 Quantum Biology in a Nutshell
0:55 The Origins of Quantum Biology
7:39 Quantum Biology after the Discovery of the DNA
12:30 Quantum Biology in the 21st Century
18:08 Potential Applications
20:00 Leverhulme Quantum Biology Doctoral Training Centre (QB-DTC)

** Quantum Biology in a Nutshell **
If I was to define quantum biology, it is not what many people might think, that at the very deepest level, if you look into a living system, a living cell, down to the level of the molecules and atoms then you hit the quantum world, because that would be true for life as well as for inanimate matter, where the quantum rules kick in. Quantum biology, as we define it today, means exploring the mechanisms and phenomena that rely on non-trivial quantum effects within living cells. By non-trivial I mean quantum tunnelling, long lived quantum coherence and superposition, quantum entanglement. These are surprising effects that we are now seeing taking place within living organisms. That is quantum biology.

** The Origins of Quantum Biology **
We tend to think about quantum biology as being quite a new area of interdisciplinary science and in many ways it is. But actually it has rather old origins, going all the way back to the early 1930s. In fact we can even trace it back to a particular lecture that Niels Bohr gave at a conference in 1929. He hinted at the idea, as many quantum pioneers were doing back then, that maybe quantum mechanics holds the key to so much of science and the fact that quantum mechanics, in their opinion, solved the problems of physics and chemistry, they arrogantly then assumed that it could also be used to tackle the mystery of life itself. Bohr was one of these early quantum pioneers, who suggested that maybe quantum mechanics could play a role. He inspired other physicists, particularly people like Max Delbrück, who then actually changed field and became a biophysicist working in molecular biology and also Pascual Jordan.

** Quantum Biology after the Discovery of the DNA **
The one thing that we have to remember is that quantum mechanics and then developing in quantum field theory and so on was developing in parallel with the new areas of biology, genetics and molecular biology. The geneticists and molecular biologists by the 1930s and 1940s and indeed 1950s, when the double helix structure was discovered, really felt they had no need for quantum mechanics, they were so successful. They were learning so much about the molecular structure within living systems. They saw no requirement to bring in the strangeness of quantum mechanics. So to a large extent quantum biology really sort of went into the background. Particularly after the discovery of the double helix of DNA, spectroscopists and molecular biologists really were learning so much more about the building blocks of the cell, the instruction manual of life, they had no room for quantum superposition and the measurement problem, the uncertainty principle, and on all that silly business, they would leave that to physicists.

In the 1990s suddenly there were experimental techniques using fast pulsed lasers, 2D spectroscopy, where you could pump biomolecules, excite them and see how they decay. And suddenly some of these experiments were beginning to show that there were quantum effects going on, long living coherence, long lived interference effects that you couldn’t explain otherwise. Think of the two slits experiment in quantum mechanics, firing a beam of particles, photons or electrons, through the two slits and you see the interference pattern. Even when you fire one at the time, you can’t explain that interference pattern using classical mechanics, you need quantum mechanics. Well, they were seeing the equivalent of that taking place in certain special mechanisms with living cells, for example the way enzymes transfer particles from one part of the molecule to another, electrons and later even protons, 2000 times more massive than electrons, they were seeing these protons quantum tunnel from one place to another.


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