Keck award will help scientists take quantum leap to explore the mysteries of life

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Professors Paul S. Weiss and Louis Bouchard

Professors Paul S. Weiss and Louis Bouchard are co-investigators on a multi-institutional quantum biology team to receive a three-year $1M award from the prestigious WM Keck Foundation. Physicists have worked and wrestled with quantum theory for more than a century now, applying it to explore and help solve the profound mysteries of Albert Einstein’s theory of relativity and cosmological conundrums such as black holes, gravity and the origins of the universe.  

But for the team, led by Arizona State University (ASU) theoretical chemist Vladimiro Mujica, that includes (pictured left) UCLA nanoscientist Paul S. Weiss and UCLA physical chemist Louis Bouchard, Northwestern University chemistry professor Michael Wasielewski, and ASU professor of molecular sciences William Petuskey, there is still a vast, secret and fascinating world to explore — but rather than out there in the vastness of space time, at the nexus between everyday life on Earth and the quantum world.  

Cellular mutations in the molecule of life, DNA, happen randomly and are governed by quantum probability rules.

Recently, quantum mechanics has been found to play an essential role in our understanding of chemistry, biology, and the molecular theory of evolution.  

Now, the team will get a chance to explore this quantum world with a three-year, $1 million award from the prestigious W. M. Keck Foundation. Their goal is to build a foundational understanding of how the sometimes weird, exotic features of quantum physics influence the very stuff that makes life work.  

Mujica will lead the theoretical effort. Nanoscientist Weiss will lead the nanoscale experimental efforts. Wasielewski will apply his expertise in electron spin resonance techniques and Bouchard will use his expertise in nuclear spin resonance to understand the roles of handedness in conduction through biomolecular assemblies. The award, titled “Chirality, Spin Coherence, and Entanglement in Quantum Biology,” will explore fundamental quantum effects in biological systems.   

“To be successful, we really needed to think outside of the box, with a good foundation,” said Mujica, a professor in the School of Molecular Sciences. “So, we put this team together of leading experimentalists, but also with a firm grasp of theory — top-ranking people — to take a quantum leap in this field of science.”  

Hands of life 

For example, two key processes necessary for life: photosynthesis in plants and respiration in animals, are driven by reactions that involve the transfer of electrons in molecules and across boundaries within the cell. 

Electrons themselves, in addition to carrying a negative charge, have key quantum properties, including spin, that play fundamental roles in the molecular electron transfer processes that make life possible. 

“Chiral” is the Greek word for hand. No matter how hard one tries, a left hand and right hand are non-superimposable mirror images of each other. If you have ever tried to shake a person’s hand with the opposite hand, you understand that awkward encounter — simply because the thumbs are in different positions — is an everyday demonstration of chirality. 

It turns out molecules, and life, have the same chiral properties. But how does that help their biological function? 

“We’re trying to decipher in a way, a mystery of nature and evolution,” Mujica said. “Because it turns out that biological systems use these chiral molecules in proteins, DNA and RNA. These are some of the most important molecules in biology.” For example, DNA is a double-helix ladder that is intrinsically chiral. And so are the proteins encoded by these fundamental biological molecules, which are the bricks and mortars of the cell, doing all the work that makes us alive. 

Quantum mechanics is found all across biology, in: photosynthesis, cellular respiration. oxygen transport, and cellular mutations. All are governed by quantum effects. 

Nature finds a way 

One can zoom in further on life, under the skin, all the way to the molecular level and the clouds of electrons in quantum states. In everyday life, we are used to electrons being transported through copper wires to deliver electricity to our homes. But what are the wires that deliver electrons in living systems, a process that involves substantial amounts of energy and heat? And how do they avoid frying biomolecules, or by proxy, us?

“In living systems, how electrons are transferred or transported depends on organic molecules,” Mujica said. “Now, organic molecules are far less efficient than copper wires or anything like that to transport or transfer electrons. But nevertheless, evolution chose this in a way.” 

Mujica refers to this as a real mystery as to “why Mother Nature chose these lousy molecules for transferring electrons.” 

Yet, as Jeff Goldblum’s quirky scientist character in “Jurassic Park” famously once said: “Life finds a way.”

It turns out electrons are transported in organic molecules primarily by tunneling, not diffusion as in copper wires. 

“The mechanism electrons going through organic molecules is to a large extent a quantum phenomenon,” Mujica said “It’s a mechanism called tunneling, and what it implies is that electrons can go from one region of the molecule to the other, even if they do not have enough energy to overcome intrinsic barriers.” 

The team is investigating why and how electrons use this tunneling mechanism for biological function essential to life. First, they have designed a series of experiments using synthetic pairs of right or left-handed DNA structures. Next, they will custom tailor electron donors and acceptors as part of their structures to probe this chirality-dependent electron transfer. All this experimental effort is guided by a predictive theoretical and computational effort. 

Some of the model systems tweaks they will examine are the effect of the electron donor-acceptor distance, the temperature, redox properties and the coupling to their surrounding environment.  

An electron transfer process with the electron-vibration (phonon) interaction. The process is essential to understanding and controlling charge and energy flow in various electronic, photonic and energy conversion devices — or, in this case, a biomolecule. The “IN” and “OUT” have either the same or distorted phase, depending on whether the transport is coherent or incoherent.

Taking life for a spin 

A fundamental quantum electron property is spin. Electrons can be like spinning tops, rotating on their own axis. 

Mujica explains that because electrons are charged particles, “this rotation creates a magnetic moment, which only has two components; one component aligns in the direction of transport and the other component is aligned in the opposite direction to transport. 

“As they tunnel through chiral organic molecules, they have a preferential orientation due to the spin orbit interaction and the loss of time-inversion symmetry.” 

This process is known as spin polarization. It turns out, when electron spin is polarized, electrons can tunnel more easily and farther, because one of the two spin components has a larger transmission probability. 

Mujica likens it to a bullet going through the barrel of a gun. The first guns that were made all had smooth, hollowed-out barrels. But when grooves were etched in the barrel, it gave the bullets a spin that allowed them to travel straighter and farther. This simple analogy also helps us understand that bullets rotating clockwise will not go through counter-clockwise designed barrels, and vice versa – a classical analogy to what happens with electron spins. 

For their second set of experiments, Weiss will use magnetic substrates, nanoscale chemical patterning, and multimodal spin-polarized scanning tunneling microscopy and spectroscopies with oriented enantiomeric pairs of DNA and intercalated metals to elucidate and to quantify the molecular and interface contributions to chirality-induced spin selectivity. 

Since most biological molecules, including amino acids in proteins and nucleotides in RNA and DNA, are chiral, the critical roles of spin polarization in electron transport within and between biological molecules will be determined. 

The importance of quantum particle-wave duality 

Finally, electrons have a dual particle-wave quantum nature; they have particle-like properties such as mass and charge, but their dynamics and propagation follow the rules of wave quantum mechanics. 

In biology, as the electrons encounter other molecules or molecular barriers like cell membranes, they are scattered, and their wave properties are modified. Two wave sources are coherent if their frequency and waveform are identical. If not, the waves can be canceled or enhanced due to interference. This interference can be destructive and leads to noise, which can also be due to thermal interactions. 

“Spin coherence can coexist with spin polarization” Mujica said. “What it means is that you have in-phase transport, so you’re not reducing the intensity of the wave, and we’re not changing the phase of a wave associated to that transfer.” 

Spin coherence is intimately associated to another quantum process, entanglement, that is of fundamental importance in quantum information and quantum computing. 

Mujica says this is a high-risk, high-reward project that may upset the current conventional wisdom in quantum biology. 

“The common knowledge is that you couldn’t have coherence in a quantum biological system, because the environmental effects would destroy coherence in a very short time.” 

They will try to put it all together by determining how chirality influences the electronic, vibrational and spin-polarized electron transfer from electron donors to acceptor sites as spin-coherent electron pairs are generated in photo-induced electron transfer reactions, in experimental work led by Wasielewski. 

“Essentially, the center focuses on the roles of spin-polarized electrons and how they influence the behavior of biological systems, especially the length and temperature dependences, and how spin polarization and spin coherence can coexist,” Mujica said. “These are key unsolved issues in biological electron-transfer reactions.” 

In addition to studying the unexplored roles of spin coherence in quantum biology, the Keck team will study how it can coexist with spin polarization and how, or if, it can create what is referred to as the spooky “action at a distance,” or quantum entangled states. 

Key ingredients 

The overarching Keck center goal is to answer these questions, and the contributions of three key ingredients: tunneling, spin, and coherence. These are central components to discovering the underpinnings of the emerging field of quantum biology, which is part of a larger effort at UCLA.  

By exploring these questions, the new Keck center team ultimately hopes to use the grant as a catalyst to create centers for quantum biology at UCLA and ASU, and further down the road, practical applications, such as quantum information, sensing, and computing. These efforts could help position UCLA and ASU in quantum technologies and information efforts, which are of strategic importance for the U.S. 

The team has also been central to putting together roadmaps for the use of molecules for quantum information and sensing. Weiss says, “The new Keck center enables us to test these ideas and to accelerate advances in the field.”  

From ASU News by Joe Caspermeyer.