The Spooky World Of Quantum Biology

Quantum Biology

The new science of quantum biology is teaching us about how the actual behavior of evolution is governed by disconcertingly spooky processes – time travel being one of them. Will quantum computation finally be realized by biomimicry, in organic systems?  Evolution is the new (old) computation…and we’re about to take the reins.

One hundred and fifty years ago, paleontologist Thomas Henry Huxley (an autodidact and philosopher who coined the term “agnostic” and was known as “Darwin’s Bulldog” for his passionate defense of natural selection) asserted that humankind would eventually take the processes of evolution into our own hands. Within a few decades of his proclamation, a cadre of equally brilliant scientists including Werner Heisenberg, David Bohm, and Max Planck began to unravel the mysterious properties of quantum mechanics. These two theories –- evolutionary and quantum dynamics — can each be considered among the most important discoveries of all time. Taken together, they have changed almost everything about the way we understand reality. However, in spite of the popularity of interdisciplinary research and unifying theories over the last hundred years (despite, even, quantum physicist Erwin Schröedinger’s 1944 book, What Is Life?), it was only recently that the relationship between these two vastly important domains was even considered. Now, a new kind of science, called “quantum biology,” is beginning to emerge –- and it could change everything we know, again..

Quantum BiologyThe premise is simple. Life is a molecular process; molecular processes operate according to the quantum playbook; therefore, life is a quantum process. And yet, it wasn’t until the nineties that anyone suggested biology could be better understood by looking at it through the lens of quantum theory. (The seminal paper was D.V. Nanopoulos’ "Theory of brain function, quantum mechanics and superstrings.”)  Not long after that, the idea caught on – particularly in the neurosciences, where the idea of the brain as a quantum computer quickly became a topic of fierce debate.

Quantum computation, a science still in its infancy, promises swiftness and efficiency vastly superior to anything possible with conventional silicon chips. Rather than relying on binary bits like contemporary systems, quantum computers use “qubits” that include all possible superpositions of a particle’s classical state. Instead of being “trapped” in a single configuration, the logic gates of a quantum computer employ multiple possibilities in synchrony – using the entire set of alternative outcomes to arrive at an answer.

Quantum BiologyIt’s a promising avenue for people with big plans for strong AI or virtual reality. The only complication is that coherence –- in which the many possible states of a particle or group of particles stay hung in superposition –- is something scientists have only been able to study under extremely controlled conditions. It’s only possible when that system doesn’t interact with anything else that might “collapse the wave function,” and so most of the major options for quantum computing involve impractical scenarios like creating a supercooled vacuum.

This is one of the reasons that many scientists have considered quantum biology both unlikely and unscientific. The thermal noise of biological systems seemed too great to allow for quantum weirdness; and even if it could, how on Earth would we study it?  But science is the story of ingenuity’s victory over shortsightedness – and one research team, led by Gregory S. Engel at UC Berkeley, has devised way to directly detect and observe quantum-level processes within a cell using high-speed lasers.

Quantum BiologyThey were trying to establish exactly how organic photosynthesis approaches 95% efficiency, whereas the most sophisticated human solar cells operate at only half that. What they discovered is nothing short of remarkable. Using femtosecond lasers to follow the movement of light energy through a photosynthetic bacterial cell, Engel et al. observed the energy traveling along every possible direction at the same time. Instead of following a single trajectory like the electrons on a silicon chip, the energy in photosynthesis explores all of its options and collapses the quantum process only after the fact, retroactively “deciding” upon the most efficient pathway.

What does this all mean? Not only does quantum phenomena occur in living systems, but the basic processes of life we take for granted rely on the transfer of information backward in time. Life is so magical because it cheats.

Although the mechanisms by which a living cell can prevent decoherence by dampening its own chemical “noise” remain utterly mysterious, findings such as Engels’ conclusively demonstrate that room-temperature quantum computing is possible (and knowing how something works isn’t always necessary in order to use it). And Engel’s group isn’t the only team to detect it: other laboratories have implicated a phenomenon called electron tunneling (micro-teleportation, in which an electron disappears in one location and instantaneously appears somewhere else without having traveled the intermediate distance) at work behind a range of organic phenomena, from our sense of smell and the activities of our enzymes to the neutralization of free radicals with anti-oxidants…  possibly even consciousness itself. Paul Davies (Arizona State University) and JohnJoe McFadden (The University of Surrey) have independently suggested that computation in the netherworld of quantum coherence might explain how the earliest self-replicating molecules overcame the inestimable odds against them –- life’s very existence may be the consequence and continued operation of a quantum computer. We may ultimately have to accept our human quest for qubit calculation as a kind of biomimicry, rather than something new and unique.

Quantum BiologyQuantum biology stands to answer other big questions, as well –- questions that many contemporary biologists prefer to ignore. McFadden, in his excellent primer Quantum Evolution, cites several experiments that suggest certain mutations are “intelligent,” even “anticipatory.”  For example, bacterial cultures have been observed to evolve clever responses to lab toxins at speeds that – just like the emergence of DNA from a primordial soup – defy astronomical odds.  Can biological quantum calculation account for this?  McFadden thinks so. (His hypothesis was itself anticipated in the science fiction of Greg Egan, whose novel Teranesia featured some very “spooky” retrocausal mutations – including the instantaneous appearance of entire new ecosystems via competing future evolutionary scenarios. Whether such extreme examples of quantum biological principles are possible remains to be seen.)

As we continue to probe biological phenomena that beat quantum computer scientists to the punch, a new picture emerges of evolutionary computing and design. Huxley’s prophecy that we will eventually take the reins of our own evolution might come true sooner than predicted by establishment geneticists. But by appealing to the quantum oracle, we may be acting in service of something far older and more intelligent than we can even guess. Ultrafast computing, accelerated by our explorations into the new science of quantum biology, could well be the critical technology that pushes us over the edge into the Singularity – a timeless and transcendent event in which we already live, because it is the nature of life itself – a vast sentience beyond human comprehension, and we are merely the newest avenue for its expression in the world. Classical or quantum, human or ecological, natural selection still gets the last laugh.

Quantum Biology

38 Responses

  1. Michael Garfield writes:
    Not only does quantum phenomena occur in living systems, but the basic processes of life we take for granted rely on the transfer of information backward in time. Life is so magical because it cheats.

    This is not only true of photosynthesis, it is often true in human consciousness as well. Many studies have shown that people often execute a behavior, even before they have any conscious awareness of making the choice to do so. That is a great deal of why we live in such a “spooky” world.

  2. I agree with Russell Ceballos who said:
    “I just wanted to state that I feel this article is very poorly researched, and needs to acknlowledge the work of Herbert Frohlich, H. Umezawa, G. Vitiello, and Karl Pribram. Not to mention Stuart Hammeroff et. al, and the group at Rensselaer. People have been suggesting this seriously since the 60’s. I hope people will go out and find out about these people on their own.”

    Absolutely correct. Except its Its Stuart Hameroff (one m)
    Please see my website

    The comment by Garfield that the paper by D Nanopoulos is the seminal one in this field is ridiculous. Nanopoulos stole the idea of quantum computation in microtubules from Penrose and Hameroff, modified it to his string theory ideas and published without citing Penrose and Hameroff (despite my sending him several articles). He knows very little about biology.

    In addition to the photosynthesis work, other lines of evidence point to warm temperature macroscopic or mesoscopic functional states in biology. For example the work on microtubules by
    Anirban Bandyopadhyay in Japan.

    Generally speaking, the TransHumanism approach needs to incorporate quantum biology.
    But first, it needs to get its facts straight.

    Stuart Hameroff MD
    Professor, Anesthesiology and Psychology
    Director, Center for Consciousness Studies
    The University of Arizona, Tucson, Arizona

  3. duck24 says:

    Fascinating. I agree strongly with Bill Maher’s “Religion of Doubt” – i.e. none of us knows whether “mind creates matter” or “matter creates mind”. I am glad that scientists have been researching this for many decades now.

    In the meantime, I strongly believe other disciplines – namely, law and justice – can play an unexpected role. Injustice stems from asymmetries and logical inconsistencies: e.g. a politician promising to do something or vote a certain way before being elected, but after being elected, they violate their promise – i.e. are logically inconsistent with their promise. Formal logic needs to be tied in with quantum mechanics. Causation is ultimately an arbitrary definition. By “arbitrary”, I don’t mean that all reasons for choosing the definition a certain way are of equal practical value. “Arbitrary” simply means we get to choose the definition. Causation in logic is analogous to propositions, e.g. P->Q, i.e. “P implies Q” or “P causes Q”. Quantum mechanics deals with the issue of whether a “particle is there or is not there” (or simultaneously), which is clearly related to statements in formal logic, such as “P and not P”.

    But, the single most immediate necessary contribution to quantum biology will be the exact solution of nonlinear partial differential equations. I have worked on these for 20 years.
    For systems of purely “nondifferential” equations – i.e. equations in which no derivatives appear – G.P. Egorychev has provided solutions – generalization of the Lagrange Inversion Formula to systems of several dependent and several independent variables. He published his work in 1984. I am trying to build upon his work, if I could first figure out his massively complex formulae.

    But, don’t forget: ALL of this great technology will simply DROP DEAD when we run out of a sufficient amount of oil (we’re already beyond peak oil) and heat up the atmosphere and oceans aby 6 deg C with a runaway positive heat feedback loop. The only solution is a radical change of our energy systems to wind, solar, wave and geothermal ONLY, and a massive reduction in human population and consumption.

    • chris says:

      With biological levels of exploiting quanta I feel sure we could turn CO2 back into petrol (have to add some water and sunlight) and side step the issue completely.

  4. liumingzhu says:

    Photosynthesis doesn’t have an efficiency of 95%, it has an efficiency of about 3-6%, compared to up to 20% for commercial solar panels, and over 40% for experimental solar panels.

  5. liumingzhu says:

    Does the following ‘explanation’ make more sense? The wave and particle occur simultaneously. The wave spreads uniformly, while the particle follows the path of least resistance through the field of potential created by the wave.

  6. double-slit says:

    “spooky action at a distance” Einstein

    The use of the word spooky in the title didn’t frighten me at all.
    But the general mood of commenters made me hide under my bed.

    • Catherine says:

      Yes, I had no idea this crowd would be so….SNARKY. I was excited by the thoughts in this article and found the “general mood” of the readers’ replies to be very petty.

  7. Anonymous says:

    i don’t get it

  8. Vasily Ogryzko says:

    I agree with Russell Ceballos that many previous contributions could have been acknowledged. I would add these references:

    McClare CW. A quantum mechanical muscle model. Nature. 1972 Nov 10;240(5376):88-90.

    Elsasser WM. Principles of a new biological theory: a summary.J Theor Biol. 1981 Mar 7;89(1):131-50.

    Matsuno K.How can quantum mechanics of material evolution be possible? Symmetry and symmetry-breaking in protobiological evolution. Biosystems. 1985;17(3):179-92.

    Liberman EA, Minina SV, Shklovsky-Kordi NE.Quantum molecular computer model of the neuron and a pathway to the union of the sciences. Biosystems. 1989;22(2):135-54.

    Conrad M. Quantum mechanics and cellular information processing: the self-assembly paradigm. Biomed Biochim Acta. 1990;49(8-9):743-55. Review.

    Also, sorry for this shameless self-promotion, but I have recently posted a manuscript based on my talk in a Singapore workhop (2009), which some of you might find interesting:

    • Agreed Russell & Vasily…

      This article was focused on one specific recent project and not meant as a comprehensive survey of the field, but it definitely left out a lot of invaluable prior research. Thanks for pointing us all in the right direction…

  9. Russell Ceballos says:

    I just wanted to state that I feel this article is very poorly researched, and needs to acknlowledge the work of Herbert Frohlich, H. Umezawa, G. Vitiello, and Karl Pribram. Not to mention Stuart Hammeroff et. al, and the group at Rensselaer. People have been suggesting this seriously since the 60’s. I hope people will go out and find out about these people on their own.

  10. DC Taylor says:

    This is just another attempt to establish superiority over God. If it turns out be be factual, guess who established the facts.

    • Please tell me you’re kidding, then re-read the second half of this article: I made sure to stress that we are pulling at the hems of a process that is vastly more intricate, extensive, and intelligent (if we’re not afraid to use the term…mind you, I didn’t say “sentient”) than we have guessed.

      I’m assuming the “spookiness” in the title of this article (not my title) refers to my focus on how trying to engineer quantum biology doesn’t allow us to escape evolutionary dynamics…it just makes us pawns of natural selection at a higher octave. I can’t imagine how that could be misconstrued as “just another attempt to establish superiority over God.”

  11. Justen says:

    It seems to me to be perfectly natural that organisms evolve to take advantage of quantum effects. That these effects are possible is a very interesting discovery, but that our biological systems already take advantage of them is nothing to be marveled at. It’s inevitable that the most suitable mechanism to accomplish a task will be stumbled upon in the evolutionary process, and once stumbled upon will become the prevailing method. That’s not to say that evolution is a process of perfection – it can come up with apparently strange solutions – but you can be sure that those solutions are the most suitable from an available set. So, the fact that photosynthesis takes advantage of quantum effects is not at all cause for surprise – only that the effects are possible, and only then because it’s outside prevailing theory.

  12. seoguy says:

    I read a more detailed article about the photosynthesis discovery (along with some other discovered examples of nature utilizing quantum effects) a while back.

    It seems apparent that the efficiency they are talking about here is not, for example, efficiency as an alternative fuel source (among other issues, plants can only utilize certain wavelength ranges of light). Rather, it appears they are talking about the efficiency of the first step in the process – effectively routing the energy from the point of contact, to a reaction center where it can be utilized in photosynthesis, as compared to otherwise being converted into waste heat.

    But disputing what was meant by “efficiency” misses IMHO the most important point – while scientists had long believed that quantum effects were only possible in tiny, isolated objects (one of the arguments leveled against quantum consciousness, in fact!), here we discover not only it working in a much larger, non-isolated environment, but that evolution was actually using quantum effects to make biological processes more efficient!

    Up until now we have been playing with a handful of finicky qbits, but nature may actually be more scientifically advanced in the realm of quantum computing than we are! This opens-up a whole new area for quantum research.

    (BTW, this is not the first time nature has out-performed / helped-out science – drugs derived from plants are another excellent example)

  13. Tzigane says:

    “Phenomena” is the plural of “phenomenon.” Therefore, when you write, “Not only does quantum phenomena occur in living systems…”, it’s exactly like writing, “Not only does quantum incidents occur in living systems….” Totally ghetto, dude.

    So here’s an excellent style guide that will help you with your writing.

    Best of luck!

  14. Jalaluddin Morris says:

    So finally we have a logical explanation for the similarity to humans of the genetic code of pigs. The pig cells said “Four legs good, two legs better, and with a dash of quantum biology, voila, here we are!

  15. Nicolas D says:

    The fact remains that even if parts of the photosynthetic process are highly efficient, then if you want to compare its efficiency to solar panels, you really should use the overall efficiency of photosynthesis.

  1. June 10, 2011

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