“Bacteria schrödinger”: a miracle of quantum biology?

The quantum world is very strange. In theory and in practice, to a certain extent, the principles of the quantum world require that the particle could be in two places at once — this is a paradoxical phenomenon known as a superposition — and that two particles can “become entangled”, sharing information across arbitrarily large distances. How exactly nobody knows exactly. The most famous example of the strangeness of the quantum world can be called schrödinger’s cat, a thought experiment conducted by Erwin schrödinger in 1935.

Austrian physicist mentally put the cat in a box with potentially deadly radioactive substance. The strange laws of quantum mechanics allowed the cat exist in a superposition of two States — both the living and the dead — at least as long as the drawer is opened and its contents discovered.

Quirks of the quantum world

For all the strangeness of this concept was experimentally confirmed countless times in the quantum scale. But when scaled up to our, so to say, more simple and clear macroscopic world, everything changes. Nobody has seen a star, a planet or a cat in a superposition or in a state of quantum entanglement. But ever since quantum theory was first formulated in the early 20th century, scientists wondered where exactly intersect the microscopic and macroscopic worlds? How big can be the quantum reality and will it ever big enough to the most bizarre aspects was closely linked with living beings? Over the past two decades, the emerging area of quantum biology, was looking for answers to these questions by proposing and conducting experiments on living organisms that could help to test the limits of quantum theory.

These experiments have already yielded interesting, but inconclusive results. Earlier this year, for example, scientists have shown that the process of photosynthesis when organisms produce food using light, which could include some quantum effects. Navigation birds or our sense of smell also suggests that quantum effects can occur in living beings a most unusual way. But this is only the tip of the iceberg of the quantum world. So far nobody has been able to make a living organism — not even single-celled bacteria to manifest quantum effects such as entanglement or superposition.

And now, a new work of scientists of the University of Oxford makes some surprised to raise eyebrows, they write, that they managed successfully to confuse bacteria with photons — particles of light. A study conducted by quantum physicist Chiara, Marletto and published in October in Journal of Physics Communications, represents the analysis of an experiment carried out in 2016 with David Cowles from the University of Sheffield and his colleagues. In that experiment Cowles and company placed several hundred photosynthetic green sulfur bacteria between two mirrors, gradually shortening the gap between the mirrors up to several hundred nanometers — less than the width of a human hair. Passing white light through the mirror, scientists had hoped that the photosynthetic molecules in bacteria form a pair — or will-interact — with emptiness, that is, the bacteria will continuously absorb, emit and re-absorb the Bouncing photons. The experiment was successful. About six bacteria formed pairs on this basis.

Marletto and her colleagues argue that the bacteria formed a couple with the cavity. In their analysis they demonstrated that the energy signatures obtained in the experiment, can be compatible with the photosynthetic systems of bacteria, entangled with the light in the cavity. In fact, it seems that some of the photons simultaneously hit and missed the photosynthetic molecules inside the bacteria — this was the hallmark of entanglement.

“Our models show that this phenomenon can be considered as a signature of entanglement between the light and the defined degrees of freedom inside the bacteria,” she says.

According to study co-author Tristan Farrow., also from Oxford, for the first time this phenomenon has been observed in vivo. “It’s definitely the key to the proof that we are somehow moving toward the idea of “bacteria schrödinger”, so to speak,” he says. And it hints at another potential case of quantum biology in the natural environment: green sulfur bacteria live in deep ocean where the shortage of light can stimulate the quantum mechanical evolutionary adaptation for dispersal and maintenance of photosynthesis.

Such controversial statements are, however, many pitfalls. First of all, the proof of entanglement in this experiment is indirect, depending on how the observer decides to interpret the light, flowing through and flowing from a confined cavity of bacteria. Marletto, and her colleagues recognize that the classical model of free from quantum effects, could also explain the results of this experiment. But, of course, photons are not classical at all — they are quantum. And yet more realistic “semi-classical” model that uses Newton’s laws to bacteria and quantum laws for photons, cannot reproduce the results obtained by Coles and his colleagues in the laboratory. This indicates that quantum effects are seen like the light, and bacteria.

Another caveat: bacteria energy and photon were measured together rather than individually. This, according to Simon Groeblacher from the Technological University of Delft in the Netherlands, who was not involved in the study is some limitation. “It may seem that there is something at the quantum level,” he says. “But… usually when we demonstrate entanglement, we measure independently the two systems” to confirm that any quantum correlations between them will be genuine.

Despite these uncertainties, many experts quantum-biological transition from theoretical aspiration to reality, which you can feel, it’s not a question of ability is a matter of time. Individually and collectively the molecules outside the biological systems have already demonstrated quantum effects in the laboratory experiments conducted for decades, so the search for these effects among the molecules inside bacteria or even our bodies does not seem unreasonable. In humans and other multicellular creatures, however, such molecular quantum effects would be hard to see, but the tiny bacteria — why not? “This is a pleasant discovery, though, and expected,” says Grebler. “But it will definitely be a surprise to those who demonstrate it on the example of a real biological system.”

Several research groups, led by including Groeblacher, Farrow, hope to develop these ideas even more. Groeblacher, devised an experiment that could put the tiny animal — tihohodka in a state of superposition. It will be much more difficult than trapping of bacteria with the light because of the relatively large size of the animals. Farrow. is considering ways to improve the experiment with bacteria; in the following year he and his colleagues hope to confuse the two bacteria together, without touching the light.

“It’s about understanding the nature of reality and about whether quantum effects role in biological functions. Deep at the root of things all is quantum”.

May be so, for example, that “natural selection has come up with ways to living systems in a natural way to use quantum phenomena,” notes Marletto, citing the example of the above-mentioned ceramictile of photosynthesis in the deep sea. But you need to start small. In a recent experiment has been successfully confused millions of atoms. Of course, it is minuscule, even compared with bacteria. But if a bottom-up approach will work, one day we are waiting for tangled at the macroscopic level creatures, objects and even people.

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