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Who's in the Video

Jim Al-Khalili

Jim is a multiple award-winning science communicator renowned for his public engagement around the world through writing and broadcasting and a leading academic making fundamental contributions to theoretical physics, particularly[…]
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John Templeton Foundation
  • Quantum biology examines quantum effects inside cells. This is a tricky field, as physicists are not comfortable working with messy biological systems, while biologists are not comfortable with complex (and seemingly irrelevant) particle physics equations.
  • But chemists, who straddle the space between physics and biology, know that biological molecules are part of the quantum world.
  • It is likely that there are quantum effects in several biological processes, such as those that generate mutations — which means that particle physics has played a role in the evolution of life on the planet.

JIM AL-KHALILI: Quantum biology is looking for and studying quantum phenomena, quantum effects inside living cells. On the one hand, physicists don't like applying their laws of physics and quantum mechanics inside living systems because biology's hard, it's complicated, it's messy. It's hard enough trying to find quantum effects in a sterile physics lab. How does that sort of quantum behavior survive inside the noisy, messy, complex environment of a living system? So physicists think, "No, that's too complicated for us." 

Biologists don't want to think about quantum mechanics because, by and large, they don't understand the mathematics of quantum mechanics, and to be fair, molecular biology and genetics have progressed very well thank you very much, without any help from quantum mechanics. In the middle between the physicists and the biologists, are the chemists who say, "Well, of course, once you get down to the level of molecules, you're going to hit the quantum realm at some point. So you shouldn't be surprised that there must be some quantum effects. 

Don't go inventing new fields of science just to make it sound sexy somehow." There may be quantum effects going on, but that doesn't play a functional role. You don't need that to explain how an enzyme catalyzes a particular chemical reaction or how bacteria photosynthesizes light and turns it into chemical energy; that's all biochemistry and it's all understood. 

My counterargument to that is that it may well be that there are quantum effects, for example, quantum tunneling, when a particle can jump from A to B in a way that's forbidden in our everyday world, but which is very familiar to us in physics and chemistry; that may well play a very fundamental role in certain biochemical processes. For example, whether mutations can take place in DNA because a single proton, a hydrogen atom, has jumped from one strand of DNA to the other in a way that it wouldn't do if we didn't use the rules of quantum mechanics. 

Now, this could happen if it's given enough energy by, say, the surrounding water molecules that can nudge it over. But it can also quantum tunnel across, which means it can jump even though it doesn't have enough energy to get over the energy barrier. They can quantum tunnel through the hill, like a phantom walking through a brick wall. Now, mutations are necessary for life, otherwise there will be no change. 

Given the current progress we're making in genetics, gene editing, in being able to manipulate the building blocks of life down at the molecular scale, if quantum tunneling plays an important part, might it be possible to inhibit certain mutations by inhibiting the ability of particles to quantum tunnel? That would suggest that quantum mechanics plays a role in the entire evolution of life on this planet. And that might have huge implications for our health.