Saturday, May 19, 2012

Quantum biology - A Rose By Any Other Name?

I believe I may have off-handedly mentioned some of this work somewhere in a blog comment semi-recently, but I suppose some further thoughts would not be out of place at this time.  I bring it up because of this preprint and this article about said preprint.

Clearly, on one level, quantum mechanics - via chemistry - underlies biology.  This is, I suspect, a fairly unoffensive statement.  Chemical reactions are quantitatively studied in a quantum mechanical framework, and I don't see biochemical reactions being much different. 

On another level, direct appeal to quantum mechanical behavior to explain biology can seem kind of silly.  Biology is slow, wet, messy, and takes place at a whole bunch of time and length scales.  I imagine many of us recall the exercise - likely done in an introductory general chemistry course, at least in my experience - where one calculates the de Broglie wavelength for an electron and then, say, a baseball. 

Of course, when one looks at table 1 in the preprint, a light goes on.  Long-range electron transfer in proteins?  The role of tunneling in enzyme catalysis?  Vision - which involves the photochemistry of a protein-immobilized chromophore?  Photosynthesis?  A proposed radical spin mechanism for avian magnetoreception? 

This all reeks of physical(ly predisposed) chemists trying to get their dirty mitts onto a whole lot of funding.  Not that there's anything wrong with that, mind you - I'm presently trying to work "quantum biology" into my CV/resume as we speak. 

But for sake of argument, let's take a look at the Fenna-Matthews-Olsen (FMO) protein from a green sulfur bacterium where quantum effects were observed via 2D electronic spectroscopy.

Yep, definitely a protein.  But what's all of that inside the protein?

Why, it looks like the protein is the wrapping for a photochemically delicious filling of chlorophyll molecules!  I could envision that this is the sort of environment which would be conducive for maintaining some sort of quantum mechanical excitation. 

But what about - for instance - microtubules, which some have suggested play a role in consciousness via quantum mechanical effects?  Why, there's even GTP (GDP) known to associate with tubulin in the structure!  Let's take a look -

Hmmm.  Let's focus on the GTP and GDP, so how about….

Well, that was kind of anticlimactic.  That's it?  That is somehow supposed to sustain and nurture our very consciousness from the harsh decoherent world out there?  I find myself skeptical. 

I suppose that is as good a place to end as any.  I may or may not have more to say in the future after I've had a chance to properly consume and digest the preprint.  While I do find the idea of nature exploiting exciton transport, radical spin pair chemistry, proton tunneling, and so on incredibly exciting - I don't think taking that and wantonly speculating is the best route.   

FYI - This was also mostly a chance to play around some more with UCSF Chimera.  Just started using it a bit earlier this year, so if anyone has any tips or list of useful tricks, please share!  The structures were generated with this program using PDB ID 3ENI (FMO protein) and 1JFF (tubulin). 

1 comment:

city said...

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