What is Quantum Biology anyway?
‘Quantum Biology’ is a strange pairing of words, like a buddy cop movie between the square by-the-book detective and the loose cannon ‘but he gets results, damnit!’ detective. Whether Quantum or Biology is the former or the latter is a matter of perspective but no doubt this is a pair that doesn't seem to fit.
To understand quantum biology we must first appreciate the subject of quantum mechanics and the subject of biology in separation. Quantum mechanics takes the closest, most zoomed-in approach of the natural sciences; it looks at nature at the fundamental level of matter and energy and the unintuitive ways it seems to create our universe. Biology is, well, the study of living nature and is often driven by questions we have about our own nature.
The point of interdisciplinary sciences: Hierarchy of natural structure
What business do ‘Quantum’ and ‘Biology’ have being pushed together? I trained as biological chemist, somebody concerned with collections of atoms which are bound together as molecules in living creatures. Life is composed of tissues, membranes, proteins, food sources – all of which are made of molecules. For decades life scientists have examined the electrochemical properties of molecules as the basis of life, but this approach lacks full utilisation of what we know about the fundamental properties of matter and energy.
To illustrate this we can make a hierarchy of structures based on the finch, one of Charles Darwin’s favourite studies. To understand the finch we have to understand the cells it is made of. To understand the cells it is made of we have to understand the important large molecules in the cell (protein, DNA and RNA, fatty acids and carbohydrates). Then the important small molecules, followed by the atoms and bonds that form them, followed by the subatomic particles that define the atom.These are all necessary to fully understand life. Each of these structures is defined by the smaller structures that make it, quantum biology is the discipline of natural science that asks whether and to what degree quantum mechanics define the structures and mechanisms of life.
Scientific mashups, supergroups and breakthroughs
Biologists and chemists are one of the original interdisciplinary teams, forming the new sciences of biological chemistry and organic chemistry to bridge gaps in scientific understanding between these hierarchical structures. Molecular biologists and information scientists teamed up to launch the ‘-omics era’ of life science analysed with bioinformatics.
When French and British engineers constructed tunnels under the sea between France and Britain in 1994 they agreed on a plan to start digging on either side and meet in the middle, under the ground, far below the water. The footage of French and British engineers jubilantly breaking through the final few centimetres of rock was hugely significant both culturally, symbolically and practically. This is similar to the disciplines of quantum mechanics and molecular biology – we have been digging for a long time to understand nature, starting from different directions in the hierarchy of natural structures. Maybe now is the time that we can meet in the middle and explain nature in a unifying way.