Imagine healing an injury by applying a tailored magnetic field to a wound. This outcome might sound fantastical, but researchers have shown that cell proliferation and wound healing, among other important biological functions, can be controlled by magnetic fields with strengths on the order of those produced by cell phones. This kind of physiological response is consistent with one caused by quantum effects in electron spin-dependent chemical reactions. However (and it’s a big however), while researchers have unambiguously established such reactions for in vitro experiments, they have not done so for in vivo studies. The barriers to in vivo experiments stem both from the absence of experimental infrastructure to perform true quantum measurements inside biological systems and from a misunderstanding of what quantum behaviors in biology are and why they matter. In my opinion, it is time to set the record straight so that we can legitimize work in this field. Quantum biology findings could enable the development of new drugs and of noninvasive therapeutic devices to heal the human body, as well as provide an opportunity to learn how nature builds its own quantum technologies.
Quantum biology researchers study the inherent quantum degrees of freedom of biological matter with the goal of understanding and controlling these phenomena. To a physicist, I’d describe quantum biology as the study of light–matter interactions, where the matter is living. Quantum biology is not the study of classical biology using quantum tools, nor is it the application of quantum computers or of quantum machine learning to drug discovery or healthcare big data processing, and it definitely has nothing to do with the manipulation of free will, with the origin of consciousness, or with other New Age buzzwords.
Experimental evidence consistent with quantum effects existing in biological systems has been around for more than 50 years. One example is the spin-dependent chemical reaction thought to allow birds to navigate using Earth’s weak magnetic field. Today, there is no doubt that such phenomena play important roles in laboratory biological systems—for example, it is uncontroversial that quantum superpositions can manifest in proteins in solution for long enough that they influence chemical processes. But as yet there is no unambiguous experimental evidence that a single living cell can maintain or utilize quantum superposition states within its molecules, as is required, for example, if birds truly use a quantum process as a compass. [Continue reading…]