What is quantum-level biological research? How does it compare with typical biological research? In this edition of "Comparatively Speaking," Tony O’Lenick asks Nava Dayan, Ph.D., who provides further explanation.
If you've ever conducted an experiment and could not explain the results, it could be due to what Einstein referred to as “hidden variables,” providing a yet-to-be-revealed truth. Simply put, the way you conducted the experiment did not, in spite of your intention, serve your objective. For example, for some years, I had studied the interaction of light with skin and in some cases, I was unable to make sense of some of my findings.
However, searching for the truth challenged me to open up to areas of research I hadn’t yet explored. In this case, I eventually realized that observing structures, movements and positions was not sufficient; hidden variables including levels of energy, patterns of vibrations and electron spinning, for example, were present.
Such phenomena described by quantum physics are nothing close to what we chemists and biologists are typically educated in, nor are they typically how we relate to the world and its behavior. But they exist and are a part of our natural world, on a very small scale. Indeed, quantum mechanics describes a reality on the smallest of scales. It’s a world in which particles can exist in two or more places at once, tunnel through barriers, spread themselves like waves, and even possess direct connections that expand across distances.
Schrödinger explained that many of life’s properties, including those attributed to DNA and enzyme activity, depend on molecules made of comparatively few particles. As such, there are layers to matter, its organization and positions.
Searching for Answers
We already know that chemistry and biology cannot explain many of the phenomena we observe in our research. For example, we know enzymes can efficiently facilitate chemical reactions in ways we cannot achieve at the bench but we don’t know how, exactly, they do it. We are also bound to the “key and lock” theory by which a receptor or “lock” interacts specifically with a ligand or “key” that matches it structure. But this does not explain why similar chemicals do not activate the receptor in a similar manner, or why chemicals that are vastly different from the natural ligand impart a biological effect mediated by the receptor. It appears when nature has a goal, it chooses many paths to obtain it and acts in a field of probabilities.
This brings us to the question at hand: What is quantum-level biological research? This area pushes the bounds of familiar biological research to explore hidden quantum mechanics phenomena in a biological system setting. For example, considering what happens when the sun shines on skin, quantum biology looks to the penetration of particles or waves, or both, into what we perceive as a molecular barrier.
Further, while we know UVB irradiation affects various biological phenomena in skin cells, we don’t know exactly why or how it happens at the sub-molecular level. We describe the generation of a flood of reactive oxygen species (ROS) that we tie to a biological imbalance and the term inflammation. We also identify and quantify ROS but quantum biology seeks to learn about the effects of their energy levels, vibration positions and electron spinning behavior on DNA damage.
At the Precipice
Indeed, the familiar molecular structures provide limited information. Other traits can make a difference; for example, if two similar structures exhibit different weights but vibrate differently, their impact will vary. The overall cellular environment in which they operate can also affect this vibrational field, adding another level of complexity.
With this novel discipline that is quantum biology, we chemists and biologist are at the precipice of exploring new options for older, unsolved mysteries. The next step will be taking these novel discoveries to the bench, where they will influence how we formulate.