Biology and quantum physics are two disciplines in science that rarely overlap. Quantum physics studies the strange workings of fundamental particles smaller than an atom, while biology looks at much larger chemical interactions and living organisms. However new unconventional research suggests that something as mundane as stopping to smell the roses is made possible by processes that bridge that gap.
Roses grow by using chlorophyll to convert sunlight into food through photosynthesis. However a recent study of photosynthesis of green sulfur bacteria found that these tiny microorganisms might just use some quantum weirdness to help transfer that food energy efficiently. Energized electrons travel through the myriad of connections within the bacterium’s single cell transferring energy throughout. Electrons, which are quantum particles, can literally exist along a wave function at multiple points at one time. Only when someone (or something) seeks to measure them do their wave functions collapse and they resolve into a single point.
The bacterium takes advantage of this quantum peculiarity by letting the electron randomly wander through all of the potential paths across the connections simultaneously. The path that first reaches the intended destination collapses the wave functions of all the other particles on alternate routes, so only the most efficient path is used. This is really a fundamental form of quantum computing in the natural world.
After you’ve taken a deep sniff of the blossom, another quantum effect might be helping you smell that rosy smell.
A new take at how we sense smells uses an exotic phenomenon known as quantum tunneling. This happens when a quantum sized particle, like an electron, is seemingly able to show up on the opposite side of a theoretically impenetrable barrier. When you inhale, tiny particles called odorants enter your nose and interact with the smell receptors. However a new study shows that it’s likely that electrons from the smell receptors are able to tunnel through the odorants to the other side, creating an electrical current. This current sets the odorant vibrating at a specific frequency giving the rose its sweet smell.
Right now these theories are still outside the mainstream of convention, but they are starting to gain traction. It’s not impossible that in a few years a new field of quantum biology will start to develop as more and more of the wonders of the natural world are linked to fundamental physics.