Fascinating theories involving quantum mechanics and organic life

Understanding nature at the quantum level has incredible implications on the way we understand ourselves and the world around us. And in turn how we build intelligent systems and new technologies.

While trying to build a broader and deeper understanding of the brain, life, consciousness and meaning, I’ve stumbled across the following fascinating examples of work in this field.

Energy collection and storage in photosynthesis

95% efficient energy transfer

It seems the example of quantum mechanics in nature that is most well tested is that of photosynthesis. Scientists found that the way plants collect solar energy and transfer it to their energy storage centers is incredibly efficient. This led them to try and understand how that could be. Which eventually led to some rigorous tests of photosynthetic bacteria where they were able to isolate quantum effects as the most probable means of energy transfer.

And this is an excerpt from an MIT professors explanation of quantum mechanics applied to photosynthesis:

With some more background here for science types.

Sense of smell

How do we really differentiate between smells?

The standing model for understanding smell is primarily based on the shape of molecules plugging into receptor sites and being perceived as unique smells. This model broke down when they found that multiple very similar molecules could plug into the same receptor sites yet we would experience the smells differently.

This led a research scientist, Luca Turin, to study the differences and propose a different model. This model is called the vibration theory of olfaction (linked below) which proposes that receptor sites contain some quantum transfer mechanisms that allow the cell to perceive more about the molecule than just its shape.

This theory has some criticism but also a lot of support. Whether it’s right or not, it seems the application of quantum mechanics to numerous biological processes will open up new doors to the way we understand the immensely complex systems that let us be living, thinking things.

Bird navigation

Another interesting and well tested example is that of bird navigation. Birds can migrate thousands of miles and find their way back to specific locations. It seems one basis of this is their ability to detect magnetic fields. When scientists generate magnetic pulses or higher frequency orthogonal magnetic fields (similar to MRIs) the birds become confused and unable to navigate.

Scientist have found that there are some specific proteins that many mammals including humans have which allow for detecting magnetic fields.

These proteins are called cryptochromes. They’ve found if they remove them from nats, then they also lose their navigational capability. This idea is then abstracted to apply the same to birds and give support to the idea that humans have some magnetic senses.

The means for detecting magnetic forces seems to be related to the proteins ability to detect the change in orientation of some subatomic particles spin due to magnetism. One speculation that rides on top of this is then that some creatures have these proteins in their photo receptors and they can literally see the magnetism of the world around them like woh.

Green Tea antioxidant activity

One mechanism that seems to make green tea an effective antioxidant is via quantum tunneling to pick up free radicals. Basically the molecules called catechins in green tea create a structure that is very conducive to channeling electrons out of free radicals and allows them to absorb the damage versus the other biological systems.

Study here: http://pubs.acs.org/doi/abs/10.1021/ja063766t

Free radicals are atoms with non neutral charges in the body that cause degradation in the system by stealing electrons from otherwise healthy systems.

Low level organic communication circuitry and consciousness

One of the most interesting and probably a little overextended or at least, the furthest extended from the current paradigm is the research of Dr. Hameroff of Arizona State.

He is an anesthesiologist who learned a lot about the basis of consciousness by working with anesthetics. If you can suspend consciousness with various compounds then you can learn something about the way consciousness is formed. This focus pushed him to broadly understand consciousness.

Different anesthetics and their lipid solubility — all of these compounds affect consciousness which Hameroff tries to tie to a quantum mechanically mediated effect via microtubular intracellular communication

He started by studying simple single celled organisms which don’t have neurons. Most theories of consciousness are based on a neuronal model however these small organisms still have some intelligence to reproduce, move, and attack prey.

He found that these organisms seem to have communication happening at the level of the microtubules which are self-organizing structures that form a sort of railway network within cells for moving around cell components and assembling structures.

Fascinating stuff ^. Where was this in 5th grade cell biology :)

Quantum effects in microtubule networks

Some other scientists also found that these microtubules show resonances across a range of frequencies which seems to be based on some quantum mechanics which I don’t fully understand. However this implies the existence or potentially for a vast information network within the brain.

The orchestration of resonant vibrations can occur globally between all neurons across the entire brain. For that communication, an axon inside a neuron does not require sending incredibly powerful signal wirelessly throughout the brain, by crossing the fatty myelin sheath. Conical radiation/absorption only in its vicinity via dual polar ends of a neuron would be enough to trigger a cascade communication globally throughout the entire brain.
 — Sahu (http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S157106451300153X)

And this information network can be shut down by the use of anesthetics which basically disrupts the quantum information flow at the microtubule level. Far out stuff but something I’ll be keeping my eye on.

Check out some more references and a video presentation he did recently below:

Much more detailed talk here, which gets into some nebulous physics meets biology meets spirituality realms. Interesting thought experiments.


Exciting times ahead…

I’m sure much more examples of quantum interactions with biology will be discovered in our life times. I’ll end by linking again to a great discussion among experts in this field.

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