Arquivo da tag: Vida

You’re powered by quantum mechanics. No, really… (The Guardian)

For years biologists have been wary of applying the strange world of quantum mechanics, where particles can be in two places at once or connected over huge distances, to their own field. But it can help to explain some amazing natural phenomena we take for granted

and

The Observer, Sunday 26 October 2014

A European robin in flight

According to quantum biology, the European robin has a ‘sixth sense’ in the form of a protein in its eye sensitive to the orientation of the Earth’s magnetic field, allowing it to ‘see’ which way to migrate. Photograph: Helmut Heintges/ Helmut Heintges/Corbis

Every year, around about this time, thousands of European robins escape the oncoming harsh Scandinavian winter and head south to the warmer Mediterranean coasts. How they find their way unerringly on this 2,000-mile journey is one of the true wonders of the natural world. For unlike many other species of migratory birds, marine animals and even insects, they do not rely on landmarks, ocean currents, the position of the sun or a built-in star map. Instead, they are among a select group of animals that use a remarkable navigation sense – remarkable for two reasons. The first is that they are able to detect tiny variations in the direction of the Earth’s magnetic field – astonishing in itself, given that this magnetic field is 100 times weaker than even that of a measly fridge magnet. The second is that robins seem to be able to “see” the Earth’s magnetic field via a process that even Albert Einstein referred to as “spooky”. The birds’ in-built compass appears to make use of one of the strangest features of quantum mechanics.

Over the past few years, the European robin, and its quantum “sixth sense”, has emerged as the pin-up for a new field of research, one that brings together the wonderfully complex and messy living world and the counterintuitive, ethereal but strangely orderly world of atoms and elementary particles in a collision of disciplines that is as astonishing and unexpected as it is exciting. Welcome to the new science of quantum biology.

Most people have probably heard of quantum mechanics, even if they don’t really know what it is about. Certainly, the idea that it is a baffling and difficult scientific theory understood by just a tiny minority of smart physicists and chemists has become part of popular culture. Quantum mechanics describes a reality on the tiniest scales that is, famously, very weird indeed; a world in which particles can exist in two or more places at once, spread themselves out like ghostly waves, tunnel through impenetrable barriers and even possess instantaneous connections that stretch across vast distances.

But despite this bizarre description of the basic building blocks of the universe, quantum mechanics has been part of all our lives for a century. Its mathematical formulation was completed in the mid-1920s and has given us a remarkably complete account of the world of atoms and their even smaller constituents, the fundamental particles that make up our physical reality. For example, the ability of quantum mechanics to describe the way that electrons arrange themselves within atoms underpins the whole of chemistry, material science and electronics; and is at the very heart of most of the technological advances of the past half-century. Without the success of the equations of quantum mechanics in describing how electrons move through materials such as semiconductors we would not have developed the silicon transistor and, later, the microchip and the modern computer.

However, if quantum mechanics can so beautifully and accurately describe the behaviour of atoms with all their accompanying weirdness, then why aren’t all the objects we see around us, including us – which are after all only made up of these atoms – also able to be in two place at once, pass through impenetrable barriers or communicate instantaneously across space? One obvious difference is that the quantum rules apply to single particles or systems consisting of just a handful of atoms, whereas much larger objects consist of trillions of atoms bound together in mindboggling variety and complexity. Somehow, in ways we are only now beginning to understand, most of the quantum weirdness washes away ever more quickly the bigger the system is, until we end up with the everyday objects that obey the familiar rules of what physicists call the “classical world”. In fact, when we want to detect the delicate quantum effects in everyday-size objects we have to go to extraordinary lengths to do so – freezing them to within a whisker of absolute zero and performing experiments in near-perfect vacuums.

Quantum effects were certainly not expected to play any role inside the warm, wet and messy world of living cells, so most biologists have thus far ignored quantum mechanics completely, preferring their traditional ball-and-stick models of the molecular structures of life. Meanwhile, physicists have been reluctant to venture into the messy and complex world of the living cell; why should they when they can test their theories far more cleanly in the controlled environment of the lab where they at least feel they have a chance of understanding what is going on?

Erwin Schrödinger, whose book What is Life? suggested that the macroscopic order of life was based on order at its quantum level.

Erwin Schrödinger, whose book What is Life? suggested that the macroscopic order of life was based on order at its quantum level. Photograph: Bettmann/CORBIS

Yet, 70 years ago, the Austrian Nobel prize-winning physicist and quantum pioneer, Erwin Schrödinger, suggested in his famous book,What is Life?, that, deep down, some aspects of biology must be based on the rules and orderly world of quantum mechanics. His book inspired a generation of scientists, including the discoverers of the double-helix structure of DNA, Francis Crick and James Watson. Schrödinger proposed that there was something unique about life that distinguishes it from the rest of the non-living world. He suggested that, unlike inanimate matter, living organisms can somehow reach down to the quantum domain and utilise its strange properties in order to operate the extraordinary machinery within living cells.

Schrödinger’s argument was based on the paradoxical fact that the laws of classical physics, such as those of Newtonian mechanics and thermodynamics, are ultimately based on disorder. Consider a balloon. It is filled with trillions of molecules of air all moving entirely randomly, bumping into one another and the inside wall of the balloon. Each molecule is governed by orderly quantum laws, but when you add up the random motions of all the molecules and average them out, their individual quantum behaviour washes out and you are left with the gas laws that predict, for example, that the balloon will expand by a precise amount when heated. This is because heat energy makes the air molecules move a little bit faster, so that they bump into the walls of the balloon with a bit more force, pushing the walls outward a little bit further. Schrödinger called this kind of law “order from disorder” to reflect the fact that this apparent macroscopic regularity depends on random motion at the level of individual particles.

But what about life? Schrödinger pointed out that many of life’s properties, such as heredity, depend of molecules made of comparatively few particles – certainly too few to benefit from the order-from-disorder rules of thermodynamics. But life was clearly orderly. Where did this orderliness come from? Schrödinger suggested that life was based on a novel physical principle whereby its macroscopic order is a reflection of quantum-level order, rather than the molecular disorder that characterises the inanimate world. He called this new principle “order from order”. But was he right?

Up until a decade or so ago, most biologists would have said no. But as 21st-century biology probes the dynamics of ever-smaller systems – even individual atoms and molecules inside living cells – the signs of quantum mechanical behaviour in the building blocks of life are becoming increasingly apparent. Recent research indicates that some of life’s most fundamental processes do indeed depend on weirdness welling up from the quantum undercurrent of reality. Here are a few of the most exciting examples.

Enzymes are the workhorses of life. They speed up chemical reactions so that processes that would otherwise take thousands of years proceed in seconds inside living cells. Life would be impossible without them. But how they accelerate chemical reactions by such enormous factors, often more than a trillion-fold, has been an enigma. Experiments over the past few decades, however, have shown that enzymes make use of a remarkable trick called quantum tunnelling to accelerate biochemical reactions. Essentially, the enzyme encourages electrons and protons to vanish from one position in a biomolecule and instantly rematerialise in another, without passing through the gap in between – a kind of quantum teleportation.

And before you throw your hands up in incredulity, it should be stressed that quantum tunnelling is a very familiar process in the subatomic world and is responsible for such processes as radioactive decay of atoms and even the reason the sun shines (by turning hydrogen into helium through the process of nuclear fusion). Enzymes have made every single biomolecule in your cells and every cell of every living creature on the planet, so they are essential ingredients of life. And they dip into the quantum world to help keep us alive.

Another vital process in biology is of course photosynthesis. Indeed, many would argue that it is the most important biochemical reaction on the planet, responsible for turning light, air, water and a few minerals into grass, trees, grain, apples, forests and, ultimately, the rest of us who eat either the plants or the plant-eaters.

The initiating event is the capture of light energy by a chlorophyll molecule and its conversion into chemical energy that is harnessed to fix carbon dioxide and turn it into plant matter. The process whereby this light energy is transported through the cell has long been a puzzle because it can be so efficient – close to 100% and higher than any artificial energy transport process.

Sunlight shines through chestnut tree leaves. Quantum biology can explain why photosynthesis in plants is so efficient.

Sunlight shines through chestnut tree leaves. Quantum biology can explain why photosynthesis in plants is so efficient. Photograph: Getty Images/Visuals Unlimited

The first step in photosynthesis is the capture of a tiny packet of energy from sunlight that then has to hop through a forest of chlorophyll molecules to makes its way to a structure called the reaction centre where its energy is stored. The problem is understanding how the packet of energy appears to so unerringly find the quickest route through the forest. An ingenious experiment, first carried out in 2007 in Berkley, California, probed what was going on by firing short bursts of laser light at photosynthetic complexes. The research revealed that the energy packet was not hopping haphazardly about, but performing a neat quantum trick. Instead of behaving like a localised particle travelling along a single route, it behaves quantum mechanically, like a spread-out wave, and samples all possible routes at once to find the quickest way.

A third example of quantum trickery in biology – the one we introduced in our opening paragraph – is the mechanism by which birds and other animals make use of the Earth’s magnetic field for navigation. Studies of the European robin suggest that it has an internal chemical compass that utilises an astonishing quantum concept called entanglement, which Einstein dismissed as “spooky action at a distance”. This phenomenon describes how two separated particles can remain instantaneously connected via a weird quantum link. The current best guess is that this takes place inside a protein in the bird’s eye, where quantum entanglement makes a pair of electrons highly sensitive to the angle of orientation of the Earth’s magnetic field, allowing the bird to “see” which way it needs to fly.

All these quantum effects have come as a big surprise to most scientists who believed that the quantum laws only applied in the microscopic world. All delicate quantum behaviour was thought to be washed away very quickly in bigger objects, such as living cells, containing the turbulent motion of trillions of randomly moving particles. So how does life manage its quantum trickery? Recent research suggests that rather than avoiding molecular storms, life embraces them, rather like the captain of a ship who harnesses turbulent gusts and squalls to maintain his ship upright and on course.

Just as Schrödinger predicted, life seems to be balanced on the boundary between the sensible everyday world of the large and the weird and wonderful quantum world, a discovery that is opening up an exciting new field of 21st-century science.

Life on the Edge: The Coming of Age of Quantum Biology by Jim Al-Khalili and Johnjoe McFadden will be published by Bantam Press on 6 November.

A New Physics Theory of Life (Quanta Magazine)

Jeremy England

Jeremy England, a 31-year-old physicist at MIT, thinks he has found the underlying physics driving the origin and evolution of life. (Katherine Taylor for Quanta Magazine).

By: Natalie Wolchover

January 22, 2014

Why does life exist?

Popular hypotheses credit a primordial soup, a bolt of lightning and a colossal stroke of luck. But if a provocative new theory is correct, luck may have little to do with it. Instead, according to the physicist proposing the idea, the origin and subsequent evolution of life follow from the fundamental laws of nature and “should be as unsurprising as rocks rolling downhill.”

From the standpoint of physics, there is one essential difference between living things and inanimate clumps of carbon atoms: The former tend to be much better at capturing energy from their environment and dissipating that energy as heat. Jeremy England, a 31-year-old assistant professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, has derived a mathematical formula that he believes explains this capacity. The formula, based on established physics, indicates that when a group of atoms is driven by an external source of energy (like the sun or chemical fuel) and surrounded by a heat bath (like the ocean or atmosphere), it will often gradually restructure itself in order to dissipate increasingly more energy. This could mean that under certain conditions, matter inexorably acquires the key physical attribute associated with life.

Plagiomnium affine

“You start with a random clump of atoms, and if you shine light on it for long enough, it should not be so surprising that you get a plant,” England said.

England’s theory is meant to underlie, rather than replace, Darwin’s theory of evolution by natural selection, which provides a powerful description of life at the level of genes and populations. “I am certainly not saying that Darwinian ideas are wrong,” he explained. “On the contrary, I am just saying that from the perspective of the physics, you might call Darwinian evolution a special case of a more general phenomenon.”

His idea, detailed in a recent paper and further elaborated in a talk he is delivering at universities around the world, has sparked controversy among his colleagues, who see it as either tenuous or a potential breakthrough, or both.

England has taken “a very brave and very important step,” said Alexander Grosberg, a professor of physics at New York University who has followed England’s work since its early stages. The “big hope” is that he has identified the underlying physical principle driving the origin and evolution of life, Grosberg said.

“Jeremy is just about the brightest young scientist I ever came across,” said Attila Szabo, a biophysicist in the Laboratory of Chemical Physics at the National Institutes of Health who corresponded with England about his theory after meeting him at a conference. “I was struck by the originality of the ideas.”

Others, such as Eugene Shakhnovich, a professor of chemistry, chemical biology and biophysics at Harvard University, are not convinced. “Jeremy’s ideas are interesting and potentially promising, but at this point are extremely speculative, especially as applied to life phenomena,” Shakhnovich said.

England’s theoretical results are generally considered valid. It is his interpretation — that his formula represents the driving force behind a class of phenomena in nature that includes life — that remains unproven. But already, there are ideas about how to test that interpretation in the lab.

“He’s trying something radically different,” said Mara Prentiss, a professor of physics at Harvard who is contemplating such an experiment after learning about England’s work. “As an organizing lens, I think he has a fabulous idea. Right or wrong, it’s going to be very much worth the investigation.”

A computer simulation by Jeremy England and colleagues shows a system of particles confined inside a viscous fluid in which the turquoise particles are driven by an oscillating force. Over time (from top to bottom), the force triggers the formation of more bonds among the particles.

At the heart of England’s idea is the second law of thermodynamics, also known as the law of increasing entropy or the “arrow of time.” Hot things cool down, gas diffuses through air, eggs scramble but never spontaneously unscramble; in short, energy tends to disperse or spread out as time progresses. Entropy is a measure of this tendency, quantifying how dispersed the energy is among the particles in a system, and how diffuse those particles are throughout space. It increases as a simple matter of probability: There are more ways for energy to be spread out than for it to be concentrated. Thus, as particles in a system move around and interact, they will, through sheer chance, tend to adopt configurations in which the energy is spread out. Eventually, the system arrives at a state of maximum entropy called “thermodynamic equilibrium,” in which energy is uniformly distributed. A cup of coffee and the room it sits in become the same temperature, for example. As long as the cup and the room are left alone, this process is irreversible. The coffee never spontaneously heats up again because the odds are overwhelmingly stacked against so much of the room’s energy randomly concentrating in its atoms.

Although entropy must increase over time in an isolated or “closed” system, an “open” system can keep its entropy low — that is, divide energy unevenly among its atoms — by greatly increasing the entropy of its surroundings. In his influential 1944 monograph “What Is Life?” the eminent quantum physicist Erwin Schrödinger argued that this is what living things must do. A plant, for example, absorbs extremely energetic sunlight, uses it to build sugars, and ejects infrared light, a much less concentrated form of energy. The overall entropy of the universe increases during photosynthesis as the sunlight dissipates, even as the plant prevents itself from decaying by maintaining an orderly internal structure.

Life does not violate the second law of thermodynamics, but until recently, physicists were unable to use thermodynamics to explain why it should arise in the first place. In Schrödinger’s day, they could solve the equations of thermodynamics only for closed systems in equilibrium. In the 1960s, the Belgian physicist Ilya Prigogine made progress on predicting the behavior of open systems weakly driven by external energy sources (for which he won the 1977 Nobel Prize in chemistry). But the behavior of systems that are far from equilibrium, which are connected to the outside environment and strongly driven by external sources of energy, could not be predicted.

This situation changed in the late 1990s, due primarily to the work of Chris Jarzynski, now at the University of Maryland, and Gavin Crooks, now at Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory. Jarzynski and Crooks showed that the entropy produced by a thermodynamic process, such as the cooling of a cup of coffee, corresponds to a simple ratio: the probability that the atoms will undergo that process divided by their probability of undergoing the reverse process (that is, spontaneously interacting in such a way that the coffee warms up). As entropy production increases, so does this ratio: A system’s behavior becomes more and more “irreversible.” The simple yet rigorous formula could in principle be applied to any thermodynamic process, no matter how fast or far from equilibrium. “Our understanding of far-from-equilibrium statistical mechanics greatly improved,” Grosberg said. England, who is trained in both biochemistry and physics, started his own lab at MIT two years ago and decided to apply the new knowledge of statistical physics to biology.

Using Jarzynski and Crooks’ formulation, he derived a generalization of the second law of thermodynamics that holds for systems of particles with certain characteristics: The systems are strongly driven by an external energy source such as an electromagnetic wave, and they can dump heat into a surrounding bath. This class of systems includes all living things. England then determined how such systems tend to evolve over time as they increase their irreversibility. “We can show very simply from the formula that the more likely evolutionary outcomes are going to be the ones that absorbed and dissipated more energy from the environment’s external drives on the way to getting there,” he said. The finding makes intuitive sense: Particles tend to dissipate more energy when they resonate with a driving force, or move in the direction it is pushing them, and they are more likely to move in that direction than any other at any given moment.

“This means clumps of atoms surrounded by a bath at some temperature, like the atmosphere or the ocean, should tend over time to arrange themselves to resonate better and better with the sources of mechanical, electromagnetic or chemical work in their environments,” England explained.

Self Replicating Microstructures

Self-replication (or reproduction, in biological terms), the process that drives the evolution of life on Earth, is one such mechanism by which a system might dissipate an increasing amount of energy over time. As England put it, “A great way of dissipating more is to make more copies of yourself.” In a September paper in the Journal of Chemical Physics, he reported the theoretical minimum amount of dissipation that can occur during the self-replication of RNA molecules and bacterial cells, and showed that it is very close to the actual amounts these systems dissipate when replicating. He also showed that RNA, the nucleic acid that many scientists believe served as the precursor to DNA-based life, is a particularly cheap building material. Once RNA arose, he argues, its “Darwinian takeover” was perhaps not surprising.

The chemistry of the primordial soup, random mutations, geography, catastrophic events and countless other factors have contributed to the fine details of Earth’s diverse flora and fauna. But according to England’s theory, the underlying principle driving the whole process is dissipation-driven adaptation of matter.

This principle would apply to inanimate matter as well. “It is very tempting to speculate about what phenomena in nature we can now fit under this big tent of dissipation-driven adaptive organization,” England said. “Many examples could just be right under our nose, but because we haven’t been looking for them we haven’t noticed them.”

Scientists have already observed self-replication in nonliving systems. According to new research led by Philip Marcus of the University of California, Berkeley, and reported in Physical Review Letters in August, vortices in turbulent fluids spontaneously replicate themselves by drawing energy from shear in the surrounding fluid. And in a paper appearing online this week in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, Michael Brenner, a professor of applied mathematics and physics at Harvard, and his collaborators present theoretical models and simulations of microstructures that self-replicate. These clusters of specially coated microspheres dissipate energy by roping nearby spheres into forming identical clusters. “This connects very much to what Jeremy is saying,” Brenner said.

Besides self-replication, greater structural organization is another means by which strongly driven systems ramp up their ability to dissipate energy. A plant, for example, is much better at capturing and routing solar energy through itself than an unstructured heap of carbon atoms. Thus, England argues that under certain conditions, matter will spontaneously self-organize. This tendency could account for the internal order of living things and of many inanimate structures as well. “Snowflakes, sand dunes and turbulent vortices all have in common that they are strikingly patterned structures that emerge in many-particle systems driven by some dissipative process,” he said. Condensation, wind and viscous drag are the relevant processes in these particular cases.

“He is making me think that the distinction between living and nonliving matter is not sharp,” said Carl Franck, a biological physicist at Cornell University, in an email. “I’m particularly impressed by this notion when one considers systems as small as chemical circuits involving a few biomolecules.”

Snowflake

England’s bold idea will likely face close scrutiny in the coming years. He is currently running computer simulations to test his theory that systems of particles adapt their structures to become better at dissipating energy. The next step will be to run experiments on living systems.

Prentiss, who runs an experimental biophysics lab at Harvard, says England’s theory could be tested by comparing cells with different mutations and looking for a correlation between the amount of energy the cells dissipate and their replication rates. “One has to be careful because any mutation might do many things,” she said. “But if one kept doing many of these experiments on different systems and if [dissipation and replication success] are indeed correlated, that would suggest this is the correct organizing principle.”

Brenner said he hopes to connect England’s theory to his own microsphere constructions and determine whether the theory correctly predicts which self-replication and self-assembly processes can occur — “a fundamental question in science,” he said.

Having an overarching principle of life and evolution would give researchers a broader perspective on the emergence of structure and function in living things, many of the researchers said. “Natural selection doesn’t explain certain characteristics,” said Ard Louis, a biophysicist at Oxford University, in an email. These characteristics include a heritable change to gene expression called methylation, increases in complexity in the absence of natural selection, and certain molecular changes Louis has recently studied.

If England’s approach stands up to more testing, it could further liberate biologists from seeking a Darwinian explanation for every adaptation and allow them to think more generally in terms of dissipation-driven organization. They might find, for example, that “the reason that an organism shows characteristic X rather than Y may not be because X is more fit than Y, but because physical constraints make it easier for X to evolve than for Y to evolve,” Louis said.

“People often get stuck in thinking about individual problems,” Prentiss said.  Whether or not England’s ideas turn out to be exactly right, she said, “thinking more broadly is where many scientific breakthroughs are made.”

Emily Singer contributed reporting.

Correction: This article was revised on January 22, 2014, to reflect that Ilya Prigogine won the Nobel Prize in chemistry, not physics.