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  • Quantum Biology

    “What can nature teach us about quantum technology?”

    August, 11th 2023

    Clarice Aiello is a Brazilian quantum engineer, expert in nanosensors, researcher at UCLA’s Quantum Biology Tech Lab (QuBiT), member of the California NanoSystems Institute (CNSI) and leader of UCLA’s new Center for Quantum Biology.

    Since finishing her post-doctorate in 2017, a universe of research has opened for Clarice. She began to study how to apply her knowledge on quantum sensors to organic materials. In this interview, the researcher speaks about the fascinating emerging field of quantum biology, and what impacts new knowledge on the topic can bring to science and to our understanding of nature. She also speaks about the challenges imposed on a disruptive and transforming science front.

    Pioneer Science: Why quantum biology?

    Clarice: I decided to study quantum biology almost by accident. I did my PhD in the field of quantum computing and, during my postdoctoral work, I realized that some phenomena in biology behave very similarly to the quantum sensors I was used to.

    Also, quantum biology is an emerging area of science, which has been around for many decades, but lacks high-tech, rigorous experiments like the ones in my studies. Therefore, it was an opportunity to start trying to do quantum biology in a more high-tech way than it is usually done, considering that the field is dominated by theoretical physicists, biologists, and experimental chemists.

    Quantum biology sits at the interface of two areas of knowledge: biology and quantum physics. Can you explain what quantum physics is and how it differs from conventional physics?

    Quantum physics is the physics that appears when you talk about things on very small scales. Everything in the universe is made of atoms, which are quantum objects par excellence, but when many quantum objects start to come together, the uncontrolled interactions between them lead this clump of matter to behave like a classical object – which can be described using Newton laws.

    Thus, quantum physics comprises a series of rules that apply to quantum objects that are very well isolated and for a limited time. Although we don’t say this often, we live in a world driven by quantum mechanics: laser, magnetic resonance and all normal electronics depend on transistors – which work in a quantum way.

    And there is evidence, although not yet conclusive, that in the same way that the transistor is behind your computer or smartphone, some quantum physics phenomena are behind biological phenomena.

    Pesquisador realizando experimentos no Quantum Lab
    Researcher experimenting in the Quantum Lab.

    What is spin and how does it relate to quantum physics?

    In the field of basic chemistry, where there is no controversy, it is proven that some chemical reactions depend on electron spin. Spin is a quantum property that has no classical analogue. When we say that the electron has a negative charge, this is a construction used to say that there is a property that interacts with the electric field. But the property that causes the electron to interact with the electric field is the spin. In the same way that electric charge can be positive or negative, spin can be oriented up or down. If the spin goes up, the chemical reaction continues towards one arm, and if it goes down, towards the other. The products of these two arms are macroscopically different, that is, product A comes out on one side and product B on the other.

    The time during which the reaction looks at the spin is very short, but if during that time the spin changes, the product generated also changes. Therefore, the magnetic field can change the probability that the spin is up or down; and consequently, the magnetic field can shift the reaction to one arm or the other. This interaction is very brief, but it has macroscopic consequences. So, in basic chemistry, there is no doubt that there are chemical reactions that depend on this quantum parameter.

    And what indicates that quantum mechanics governs phenomena in the biological field?

    Interestingly, it was birds that brought this into the conversation. For more than half a century, it has been understood that when birds migrate, they follow the Earth’s magnetic field. But how do they do it? If the same type of spin-dependent chemical reaction is happening inside a bird, then it can sense or interact with the magnetic field – the birds respond to different physiological products generated by each arm of a spin-dependent chemical reaction.

    In addition to birds, there is evidence for cellular respiration and for the regulation of ionic flux in cells, consistent with the spin theory. But all this evidence is correlational: no one has ever, in the same experiment, looked both at spin and at consequences in a cell.

    We want to do an experiment that either proves or disproves, unambiguously, that spin is behind this issue – the macroscopic answer exists today, which has been around for 50 years, but no one has ever proven that it is related to spin.

    How do you and your fellow researchers at UCLA search for this kind of evidence today?

    We look at quantum biology from a unique angle. There’s no one with my background who’s trying to do quantum biology experiments, and I think that’s exactly what’s been missing. This correlational evidence will continue to exist, but if we don’t upgrade the technology, it won’t move to the next level. And that’s what we’re trying to do: bring quantum instrumentation into the field of quantum biology.

    For example, in my PhD I worked with quantum sensors, and if you use a quantum object as a sensor, your measurement improves. So, I built instrumentation to control and study these quantum sensors.

    What I want now is to use the same kind of quantum instrumentation that I used to study the quantum sensor in diamond, to study and control the quantum sensor in a protein.

    The instrumentation is the same and you switch the object of study from an inorganic material that houses a quantum sensor to a protein that houses a quantum sensor.

    What instrumentation and measurement conditions would be ideal for this type of study? And how does that impact the results you have found?

    We are building a microscope with a coil, which produces a magnetic field. But it’s not a conventional microscope you’d imagine in a biology lab; it is an optical table, with several mirrors and full of electronics. It is essential to have this turn towards high tech quantum instrumentation. Because without it, we’re going to stay where we’ve been for the last 50 years: correlational evidence, which is important, but doesn’t settle the debate.

    What could accelerate the advancement in the field of quantum biology? What are the current promoting/facilitating factors, opportunities, and what hinders such advancement?

    The challenge is that folk in the biology area do not, necessarily, have a background in quantum mechanics, and we need to do some educational work. Also, there is a lot of prejudice among the physics people, especially from those who have never stopped to understand what we are trying to do because there is a lot of quackery about quantum healing, for example. In the development agencies, we face many obstacles because we are in the middle, between areas, and the people who judge proposals in one field do not know about the other. So, quantum biology is not sustaining itself and there is no incentive for young people to come and stay in the field, which is a death sentence.

    I think quantum biology is today where quantum computing was 30 years ago: there was already a lot of theory, and the first high tech experiments were just starting.

    And, regarding the first experiments in quantum computing, nobody said: tomorrow we will have a quantum computer. It took 30 years.

    What we need now is an effort to bring quantum biology and quantum biology education into the mainstream. It is a concentrated effort that should take place over 5 to 7 years, with adequate funding, to show that this type of instrumentation, which we do not have today, is necessary. And I don’t think the effort is going to come from the government and maybe not even from the universities, because it isn’t incremental science. I see this advancing outside the traditional funding agencies and with a lot of focus.

    How could initiatives such as Pioneer Science help advance the knowledge construction about quantum biology?

    I believe that, based on what we see from the private sector in the US, the importance of projects like this is very clear. In the US, a lot of private initiatives have been investing in research and it makes technological leaps possible. And the private sector can help to do basic science in Brazil – that’s what I’m trying to do with my own research, which is not going to be funded in the usual ways. And, I think that several research lines are in the same situation: they have the potential to be disruptive but are not being addressed by traditional funding agencies.

    With Pioneer Science, we already have a relationship, because IDOR is a founding member of our Center for Quantum Biology, which has as an objective a comprehensive work of community building.

    Scientifically, what new does this research bring to biology and quantum physics?

    For the field of biology, it brings another way of thinking about how to modify biological processes. There are many flavors of quantum biology and most of them have to do with the study of how biological matter interacts with electromagnetic fields: with light, electric field, magnetic field. Therefore, it’s another way to act on biological processes – and that’s a novelty. I think that, in the future, in the long run, we’re going to have a lot of ways to act on these quantum degrees of freedom in a deterministic way. For example, if you want to make a specific change to a cell, we can apply a certain electromagnetic field; if you want to make another phenomenon happen, apply another.

    In addition, quantum biology can bring an understanding of how to build better quantum technology. Everything that is born quantum dies classic. When you start putting a bunch of quantum objects together, they interact with one another in a way that is not controllable, and after a short time, usually, you lose quantum degree and those objects become better described by classical mechanics once again. This is what happens with quantum computing: after minutes or seconds, they lose their quantum character and are no longer useful. And these computers are usually in vacuum chambers and at very low temperatures because high temperatures support the process of losing the quantum character.

    So, if nature, at high temperatures, with a lot of humidity and ambient interference, is really using quantum properties to work, it means that nature itself has developed a strategy on how to reduce this level of noise that causes the loss of quantum character.

    Can we not learn from nature? What can it teach us about quantum technology?

    See also the infographic “The future with quantum biology”! In it, Clarice describes a possible future scenario for medicine, if it is proved that quantum processes can influence biological systems.


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