Good Vibrations

Does a delicately orchestrated balance between quantum and classical physics distinguish living from nonliving things?

By | August 1, 2015

CROWN, JULY 2015Why is life so different from the inanimate stuff all around us? An early idea called vitalism posited that life was animated by forces not found in nonliving matter. But the discovery that biomolecules were just complex organic chemicals pretty much discredited this notion. By the 20th century, most scientists agreed that life was just a system of extraordinarily complex chemical reactions operating according to thermodynamical principles. The same mechanisms that drove steam trains sustained life.

When Newtonian mechanics was upturned by the new quantum mechanics, a powerful set of mathematical rules and ideas describing the behavior of atoms and smaller particles, most biologists continued to cling solely to classical physics to describe processes at the molecular level. Two of the founding fathers of quantum mechanics, Pascual Jordan and Erwin Schrödinger, weren’t convinced that thermodynamics could account for life. Jordan claimed that life’s dynamics are unique, directed by a small number of particles subject to quantum laws. And, in his 1944 book, What is Life?, Schrödinger proposed that genes had an organized molecular structure, which he called an aperiodic crystal, and were therefore subject to quantum laws.

But were they right? When Watson and Crick uncovered the basic structure of genes, they found that structure was indeed a quantum mechanical entity: a double-stranded bimolecule of DNA. Quantum-level entities, such as atoms, electrons, and protons, encode and direct life’s information, just as Jordan and Schrödinger predicted. We detail the dawn of quantum biology in our new book, Life on the Edge.

Recent advances in technology have enabled the examination of living systems at a truly molecular level, and life’s quantum mechanical behavior is becoming clearer as a result. In 2006, Graham Fleming and Greg Engel at the University of California, Berkeley, were studying photosynthesis. The energy from sunlight being transported through the complex of chlorophyll molecules should be inefficient, as it would mostly take the wrong route and never reach the reaction center where it could be put to chemical use.  But the actual efficiency can be very close to 100 percent, which was a puzzle. The researchers fired lasers at photosynthetic complexes and examined the emitted light. They discovered that the energy was released in regular pulses called a quantum beats, which indicated that the energy was travelling as a quantum mechanical wave following multiple pathways simultaneously, providing the extraordinarily high efficiency of the process.

Another place where quantum mechanical behavior has been found is in the action of enzymes. These complex biomolecules enable chemical reactions that would otherwise take thousands or millions of years to happen inside living cells in milliseconds. How enzymes achieve this has long been an enigma. Work in the 1970s suggested that respiratory enzymes work by promoting electron motion via another weird quantum trick called tunnelling, where particles vanish from one position and instantly rematerialize in another without visiting any of the in-between places. Recent research has shown that enzymes also promote tunnelling of protons. This form of quantum teleportation may play a vital role in the production of every single biomolecule on our planet. Scientists have also implicated quantum tunnelling in the detection of odor molecules and in a type of mutation that is caused by proton motion within the DNA molecule.

The quantum world has been implicated in several other biological phenomena. For example, there is evidence that some migratory birds navigate by sensing the Earth’s magnetic field using quantum entanglement, whereby separated particles remain quantum-connected.

The biggest question is how living systems manage to maintain delicate quantum states in warm, wet cells, where they would be expected to vanish extraordinarily quickly due to random molecular vibrations. The latest research suggests that life, paradoxically, uses molecular vibrations to maintain quantum coherence inside its cells. Maybe this is why life is different from all the inanimate stuff: good vibrations keep us on the edge of the quantum and the classical worlds.

Correction (August 24): The original version of this article misstated the publication date of Erwin Schrödinger's book, What is Life? The mistake has been fixed, and The Scientist regrets the error.

Johnjoe McFadden is a molecular geneticist and Jim Al-Khalili a theoretical physicist, both at the University of Surrey in the U.K. Read an excerpt of Life on the Edge: The Coming Age of Quantum Biology.

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Avatar of: Warren Gallin

Warren Gallin

Posts: 5

August 4, 2015

I don't get your point.

Are you saying that life is unique because it entails quantum effects, whereas non-living systems do not?  I think that is on the face of it false.

If you are saying that living systems, like non-living systems, involve quantum effects, then yeah, but what does that have to do with the difference between living systems and non-living systems?

I think that is is safe to say that life, like the rest of the physical world, is based on quantum effects at the molecular level.

But we already knew that in principle.

Avatar of: JimM

JimM

Posts: 6

August 17, 2015

It's the Quantum channeling and tunneling that is occuring in our cells that intrigues me. The teleportation of of protons and electrons is like a page out of Star Trek. Doesn't it strike you odd that a plant can use the energy of the sun at an almost 100% capacity when we can't figure out how to do that?

I'm going to take a look at this book.

August 21, 2015

This article brings to my mind a rather personally discouraging moment in my scientific career. A handful of years ago, I was participating in a discussion with a rather distinguished American ecologist. He had brought a motley group of biologists from various disciplines, including myself, to brainstorm ideas about "grand unifying theories" of Biology. Immediately afterward, I spoke with him privately, and I don't precisely recall how the conversation led to this, but I mentioned that all life obeys the laws of physics. He was genuinely, genuinely surprised at me for saying such a thing. He really seemed to believe that life was LIFE because it did NOT obey the physical laws of "inaninmate objects." 

 

Replied to a comment from JimM made on August 17, 2015

August 21, 2015

In reply to Jim M: Just because humans haven't "figured out how to do" certain things (yet) doesn't make those things impossible. Think of all the things humans had not yet "figured out" how to do as recently as a few hundred years ago, yet we certainly know how to do them today: flying from New York to San Francisco in a winged-and-wheeled airbus artifical bird, but doing it much faster than any bird could do --  in just a few hours' time; walking on the surface of the Moon; putting devices into space that are capable of sending back images of incredibly distant objects; "seeing" in pitch darkness; talking to (and seeing in person on a glass screen) someone on the other side of the Earth (or someone walking on the moon); etc. We have devices that "hear" better than any animals, and that "see" better than any animals. 

The truth is that humans aren't really all that intelligent. We seem to spend more effort developing methods for destructive uses than for constructive uses.   

August 21, 2015

"Maybe this is why life is different from all the inanimate stuff: good vibrations keep us on the edge of the quantum and the classical worlds."

NONSENSE. Don't quantum physicists know anything about thermodynamics? The reason why life is "different" from the inanimate stuff is because living things are thermodynamically "open" systems, by which I mean that there is a continual input of exogenous energy into the system. Without this conitnual input of exogenous energy into living systems, the marvelously intricate chemical and physical organization of life would cease and succumb to entropy. There's nothing extraordinary about this. It's perfectly consistent with all the laws of physics that we are aware of today. The ultimate source of this exogenous energy is the Sun. 

If you need proof, just look at dead things that used to be alive, and think about how come they died. 

August 21, 2015

I am aghast that scientists would actually write the sentence that forms the bottom line of this article: "Maybe this is why life is different from all the inanimate stuff: good vibrations keep us on the edge of the quantum and the classical worlds."

This is NONSENSE. Don't quantum physicists (or moleular geneticists) know anything about thermodynamics? The reason why life is "different" from the inanimate stuff is because living things are thermodynamically "open" systems, by which I mean that there is a continual input of exogenous energy into the system. Without this continual input of exogenous energy into living systems, the marvelously intricate chemical and physical organization of life would cease and succumb to entropy. There's nothing extraordinary about this. It's perfectly consistent with all the laws of physics that we are aware of today. The ultimate source of this exogenous energy is the Sun. 

If you need proof, just look at dead things that used to be alive, and think about how come they died. 

Replied to a comment from Warren Gallin made on August 4, 2015

August 21, 2015

Replying to Warren Gallin: Thank you. I agree with you. 

Avatar of: hbarranch

hbarranch

Posts: 1

August 21, 2015

When I read this:

"When Watson and Crick uncovered the basic structure of genes, they found that structure was indeed a quantum mechanical entity: a double-stranded bimolecule of DNA. Quantum-level entities, such as atoms, electrons, and protons, encode and direct life’s information, just as Jordan and Schrödinger predicted."

then I knew this was extreme exaggeration. Any molecule is made of atom, electrons, and protons. An aspirin is such and I do not consider it alive. It looks to me that this is playing to those that don't know what quantum mechanics is all about. At some level everything is quantum mechanical. But those who work everyday with DNA do not specifically use any property of DNA that can't be understood using classical Newtonian mechanics and basic biochemistry binding forces. One exception might be electronic tunneling in DNA sequencing devices.

To be sure the information content in DNA is amazing. Instead of 0 and 1 as we use in a computer, it is 0, 1,2, 3 (a t g c) with a complementary backup "disk" of a second strand to reduce errors and aid replication. 

the real surprise in understanding life's processes is that it is mainly just 4 atoms, CHON.  They are all at the top of the periodic table and have no inner shell (except 1s) . They play to somewhat different rules than inorganics. 

Avatar of: N K Mishra

N K Mishra

Posts: 60

August 21, 2015

In cells where the medium is aquous, maintaining a quantum coherence through molecular vibrations ia  wonderful, which  makes life different from non-life!

Avatar of: N K Mishra

N K Mishra

Posts: 60

Replied to a comment from RetiredInBoyntonBeach made on August 21, 2015

August 21, 2015

When the life ceases, the exogenous energy, which is there, cannot bring it back to a living state

Avatar of: James V. Kohl

James V. Kohl

Posts: 481

August 22, 2015

Re: in his 1994 book, What is Life?, Schrödinger proposed that genes had an organized molecular structure, which he called an aperiodic crystal, and were therefore subject to quantum laws.

Indeed, in the case of higher animals we know the kind of orderliness they feed upon well enough, viz. the extremely well-ordered state of matter in more or less complicated organic compounds, which serve them as foodstuffs. After utilizing it they return it in a very much degraded form -not entirely degraded, however, for plants can still make use of it. (These, of course, have their most power supply of ‘negative entropy’ the sunlight) - Schrödinger (1943)

The anti-entropic force of light can be linked from the slowing of its speed on contact with water to all of life's biophysically constrained chemistry of nutrient-dependent RNA-mediatecd protein folding by the amino acid substitutions that differentiate all cell types of all individuals of all genera.

Fixation of the amino acids is manifested in nutrient-dependent ecological adaptation in the context of the physiology of reproduction and chromosomal rearrangements. For example, see: Estrogen receptor α polymorphism in a species with alternative behavioral phenotypes.

The link from microbes to vertebrates, includes humans. The honeybee model organism may be the best "bridge" to understanding the similarities in the birds and the bees.

The honeybee already serves as a model organism for studying human immunity, disease resistance, allergic reaction, circadian rhythms, antibiotic resistance, the development of the brain and behavior, mental health, longevity, diseases of the X chromosome, learning and memory, as well as conditioned responses to sensory stimuli (Kohl, 2012).

Luca Turin's works began to link quantum smell to quantum consciousness in the mid 1990's and the sequencing of the octopus geneome links his works via olfaction from octopuses to crustaceans insects to mammals via conserved molecular mechanisms and symbiosis.

Symbiosis is the ultimate across species example of the anti-entropic force of sunlight. Facts that link physics to chemistry and biology via molecular epigenetics have forced revision of the "Mondern Synthesis." Theorists are scrambling to make it appear that they still may have some semblance of credibility despite their failure to link anything known about viruses and entropic elasticity to genomic entropy via the accumulation of viral microRNAs that perturbs protein folding and leads to all pathology when nutrient-dependent microRNAs are not available to support DNA repair mechanisms that were linked to a single transcription factor in Heterotypic Signals from Neural HSF-1 Separate Thermotolerance from Longevity

Avatar of: Roy Niles

Roy Niles

Posts: 113

Replied to a comment from RetiredInBoyntonBeach made on August 21, 2015

August 23, 2015

"The reason why life is "different" from the inanimate stuff is because living things are thermodynamically "open" systems, by which I mean that there is a continual input of exogenous energy into the system."

That hardly qualifies as a "reason" for anything, assuming that by reason, you mean a reasonable explanation.  Exogenous energy is necessary for life, but the difference between life and non-life depends on the intelligent use of that energy.  Living systems have evolved to use intelligence in choice making ways that are more complex than non-living have had the need or ability or the lucky chance to do.

You haven't mentioned intelligence at all in your comments, nor have the writers of the book in question, as far as I can tell from these reviews.

Avatar of: Roy Niles

Roy Niles

Posts: 113

August 23, 2015

"The latest research suggests that life, paradoxically, uses molecular vibrations to maintain quantum coherence inside its cells. Maybe this is why life is different from all the inanimate stuff: good vibrations keep us on the edge of the quantum and the classical worlds."

Yes, but is this an intelligent use of vibrations or just mechanical? And if mechanical, do these vibrations act with an intelligent purpose?  And if not intelligent, have a series of accidents somehow built a mechanical system that gave intelligent purposes to living cells?

Avatar of: John Salerno

John Salerno

Posts: 10

Replied to a comment from RetiredInBoyntonBeach made on August 21, 2015

August 24, 2015

Spot on right. There is no inherent contradiction between the laws of thermodynamics and quantum physics; thermo can be described in trems of quantum states using stat mech. 

A rock sitting in a field is also an open system; it absorbs high energy photons primarily during the day and emits lower energy photons day and night. The difference between a rock and a plant is that the plant has evolved to make iuse of the available free energy to drive life processes like transoirt and biosynthesis. I wouldn'rt caharacterize this as 'intelligent'; the plant doesn't think about this any more than a volcano thinks about erupting. We ourselves might think about our own life processes, but our ability to control them directly is limited. In this we are much like plants and rocks, goverened by thermo and kinetics. 

Avatar of: Roy Niles

Roy Niles

Posts: 113

August 24, 2015

 

 

Actually plants do "think."  They have learned to instinctively expect a variety of forceful contacts from nature's chance selection of aggressive and competitive attempts to interfere with their growing progress; a process that in and of itself has to have been intellgently evolved.  The plant had evolved (and not by accident) several means of feeling these outside activities, and in return it has come up, with help over time from its plant family (who communicate meaningfully with their root systems), a number of ways to optionally react to what it's feeling - and to react either defensively or cooperatively.  These are choices that cannot be made mechanically, unless the mechanism itself has been constructed to make effective choices - again a system that cannot act effectively by the accidents of chance, especially by accidentally selecting accidents.

Stating that our ability to directly control our own life processes "is limited" is actualy an argument FOR intelligence rather than the opposite.  Without the ability to try and err, which is what all intelligent systems do, nothing would be controllable by any other entity at all.

 

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