Michael Clarke-Whittet

PhD student in quantum biology tackling molecular noise and quantum decoherence.
I like playing music, hiking, and the rule of three in lists.

  • Michael Clarke-Whittet

Searching for Quantum Biology

As my experimental work is ticking along I have been thinking about the problem of finding quantum biology more and more in an experimental sense. I think that it is necessarily true that life makes use of quantum mechanics, the degree to which they are intertwined is my focus. I write necessarily true because quantum physics and mechanics is a good way to understand the chemistry of life. The formation of bonds and probabilistic behaviour of electrons is quantum. Because biochemistry is guided by biological genetic inheritance then the theory of evolution connects to quantum physics via ‘classical’ biochemistry - a beautiful confluence of sciences. When humans climb hills and mountains we often take a moment to turn around and enjoy the view, a natural instinct to reflect on the journey, so let us just appreciate that it has taken thousands of years of natural science to get to this point. We have learned wonderful and frightening things about our world and ourselves and we have also produced many enhancing technologies to improve our lives.

Anybody who has ever climbed a hill will also tell you that, often when you think you are nearing the top, you find that you were not looking at the real peak. From my perspective, the ideal outcome of science is to be capable of building a model of a phenomenon that not only reflects the findings but is so robust that it can predict the outcome of experiments not yet performed. The planet Neptune takes 165 Earth years to orbit the sun, but it is not necessary to wait for that to happen to predict it. Measuring the movement and position of the planet in question allows us to know its year length. How close are we to building a model or simulation of a cell?

Here are some of the major obstacles to a predictive model of the cell:

· Uncharacterised cellular components

· Variable concentrations and abundances from cell-to-cell, stage-to-stage, time-to-time

· Incomplete understanding of systemic relationships, molecular interactions, submolecular mechanisms

· Unreliable/disconnected datasets

· Effective simulation of between one billion and one trillion molecules per cell

My PhD research focusses on the problem of variable concentrations AKA expression noise as well as the role of noise in decoherence. Decoherence is the transition of objects from quite exotic quantum mechanics to more easily observed thermodynamics. The questions I am facing right now are in the unknown interface at this level – does the quantum nature of matter cause deviation in the operation and homeostasis of cells? The combination of discrete energetic quanta and the probabilistic distribution of cohered objects like electrons could influence the rate of stochastic processes like transcription.

Also, there is the role of the environment, such as a cell, on a quantum system happening within it. Alan Turing described the Zeno effect; measuring such a quantum system will change the outcome. This is one example of a modern frontier in science – how can we build a predictive model based on observations when our observations change the outcome of experiments? This is where physicists can take a leaf out of the book of life scientists; empiricism. I suspect that the role of quantum decoherence on noise and noise on quantum decoherence where it exists can be discovered experimentally and I hope to find out either way. This would advance our understanding of molecular interactions and submolecular mechanisms based on the transition from the quantum world to the classical world and provide scope for understanding the evolution of life using quantum mechanisms.

This aspect of my research into noise in life is speculative; but poses a lot of exciting and previously unfeasible questions. Identifying new questions, like identifying the true peak of a mountain, is the first part of moving the whole science onwards and I am looking forward to searching for the answers.

We have come a long way to get to quantum biology, but there is still a way to go


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©2019 by Michael Clarke-Whittet, all views expressed here are my own.