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How Quantum Physics Informs Biology

For episode 59 of 17 Minutes of Science we are joined by Dr. Clarice Aiello, a quantum engineer interested in how quantum physics informs biology at the nanoscale.

Dr. Aiello is an expert on nanosensors harnessing room-temperature quantum effects in noisy environments. Experiments suggest that nontrivial quantum mechanical effects involving spin might underlie biosensing phenomena as varied as magnetic field detection for animal navigation, metabolic regulation in cells and optimal electron transport in chiral biomolecules. Can spin physics be established – or refuted! – to account for physiologically relevant biosensing, and be manipulated to technological and therapeutic advantage? This is the broad, exciting question that the Quantum Biology Tech (QuBiT) Lab wishes to address.

Tune in to learn more from Dr. Aiello about how quantum physics can inform biology.


Dr. Janis Weeks (Host): [00:00:10] Good morning. Welcome to this week’s episode of 17 Minutes of Science. I’m Janis Weekes, the co-founder and chief global health officer of InVivo Biosystems, and it’s my great pleasure to introduce today’s guest Dr. Clarice Aiello. Clarice is a quantum engineer interested in how quantum physics informs biology at the nanoscale, which I’m so excited to hear about. So Clarice is an expert on nanosensors that harness room temperature quantum effects and is interested in how quantum mechanical effects involving spin might contribute to biosensing phenomena as diverse as magnetic field detection for animal navigation, metabolic regulation and cells, and optimal electron transport in chiral biomolecules. So it’s a really innovative intersection of physics and biology, and we can’t wait to hear more about it. Clarice did her education at the École Polytechnique in France, University of Cambridge, MIT, and then did postdoc work at Berkeley and Stanford. And she’s been on the UCLA faculty since 2019. And as we’ll hear Clarissa’s Research Group: The Quantum Biology Tech or QuBIT Lab at UCLA, investigates how spin physics may be involved in biosensing and its many potential applications. So welcome, Clarice. We’re thrilled to have you here with us.


Dr. Clarice Aiello (Guest): [00:01:43] Thank you.


Dr. Janis Weeks (Host): [00:01:43] Let me just, Oh –


Dr. Clarice Aiello (Guest): [00:01:46] I just need to say, Janice, and Hannah, it’s such a pleasure to be here. Thank you for your interest, and I’m looking forward to talking more.


Dr. Janis Weeks (Host): [00:01:55] Great. So just to get things rolling, as I said, you study the intersection of physics and biology called quantum biology tech. So can you give us an overview a description of this field?


Dr. Clarice Aiello (Guest): [00:02:08] Yeah. So I like to call myself a quantum engineer. This means that I build apparatuses to study and control things that are so small and so well-protected from their environment that they’re better described by the laws of quantum mechanics, as opposed to the laws of classical mechanics that rule everything big around us. So what does that have to do with biology? Right, so. It turns out that in – so quantum mechanics deals with tiny little things, it can be mathematically proven that if you use a quantum object as a sensor, your measurement is improved. In other words, the sensor quantumness enhances the measurement. And that’s what I did in my past. I developed technological quantum sensors. Now there’s incomplete but but very compelling evidence that organisms might, for a short time, be using the laws of quantum mechanics in order to sense their environment, in order to interact their environment. If that’s true, that means that they might be working, again for a short time, as living quantum sensors. So what we do in our lab is to hijack instrumentation that was developed to study and control technological quantum sensors and use this instrumentation in order to, uh, at a very tiny land scale, try to understand and maybe even control those endogenous quantum mechanical knobs that might exist in nature. So that’s that’s what we’re doing in this field. This type of research is – exists within the field of quantum biology, which is the field that investigates the extent to which nature might be harnessing quantum mechanical laws to function.


Dr. Janis Weeks (Host): [00:04:07] Nice, thank you for that explanation, so. Quantum biology tech is, you know, an emerging, exciting field and how did- and your background is in physics and engineering, so how did your interest in the biology side of this develop?


Dr. Clarice Aiello (Guest): [00:04:25] So I think my click, my realization was I was realizing that. Things inside cells and proteins might be working in very similar ways to to the technological quantum sensors that I worked with in the past. So in particular, I got my click when I saw some similarities of technological quantum things and things that were potentially happening in biology, that’s how I saw it. Quantum biology in general, is a field that has been around for about 25 years, 30 years. I’m actually going to be – to make a heresy here, some people don’t like when I say this, but I think that quantum biology is maybe where quantum computing was, say, 40 years ago, that there’s a lot of theory papers on what might be happening inside cells. And there are not many experiments yet that might refute or unambiguously prove that quantum mechanics plays a role in biology. So in quantum computing, in the beginning, there was a lot of theory. Then some people started making groundbreaking experiments and then things exploded, and now we have this booming quantum industry. My hope is that this, the same, will happen to quantum biology once we, once the field itself is able to unambiguously make some proofs. Relying on some very high tech quantum inspired experiments.


Dr. Janis Weeks (Host): [00:06:11] Yeah, so along that line, I’d like you to tell us some more about what your lab is working on right now and also some sense of the equipment involved. I know when I learned quantum mechanics, I just think of these huge, gigantic instruments and and things. So how do you do your experiments?


Dr. Clarice Aiello (Guest): [00:06:29] Yes, I’ll get there. So my lab works on the potential that spin physics might play a role in biology. So spin for those who have never taken quantum mechanics or who need a refresher, spin is a merely quantum property that does not have a classical equivalent, and it represents how well a quantum object interacts with the magnetic field. For example, electrons have spin, some atomic nuclei have spin, and chemists and engineers usually represent spins with an arrow. So spin up might mean a certain energy of interaction with the magnetic field. Spin down represents another energy, so different energies of interactions of that quantum object, such as an electron with the magnetic field. It turns out that it’s known in basic chemistry, right? Not talking about biology, yet, that there are some chemical reactions that are spin dependent. That is, if a spin at some point in the reaction is up, the chemical reaction continues to one branch. If the spin at some point in the chemical reaction is down, the reaction continues to another branch and microscopically, the final products of those two branches are different. So a process, a spin process of being of being more down or more up at the top of a chemical reaction and within microseconds to nanoseconds might microscopically alter the final products of a chemical reaction downstream and at much longer timescales. And it turns out that magnetic fields can alter the probability of the spins being up or down. So our lab is interested in understanding the extent to which magnetic fields might influence chemical reactions, right? And the extent to which this already happens in nature. For example, it’s known without the shadow of a doubt that birds when they migrate, they use the magnetic field of the Earth, at least is a partial cue, and the magnetic field of the Earth is orders of magnitude smaller than the magnetic field that you sense when you put your cell phone close to you. So how might they be doing this? In the beginning of the 80s some very brave theoretical biophysicist made an outrageous hypothesis. They said, ‘well, were these spin dependent chemical reactions happening inside the birds at room temperature. Somehow, birds and organisms in general might sense magnetic fields to the extent that they might sense different physiological concentrations of products coming from these spin dependent chemical reactions.’ At that point, this was completely outrageous because those finicky spin dependent chemical reactions. So quantum mechanics is usually the stuff of very low temperatures of things prepared in a vacuum, right? People, physicists in particular, they do not really associate quantum mechanics with, uh, things that happen at physiological temperatures because everything that starts quantum dies classical. And – after a short time, and that’s why we live in the classical world. So the possibility that quantum mechanics might play a role in vivo was was crazy at that point. But now there is compelling evidence in experiments with either like proteins in solution or whole organisms, whole birds, whole migrating butterflies that actually indicate that such finicky quantum process of a spin being turned up or down might actually affect physiological things such as organismal migration.


Dr. Janis Weeks (Host): [00:10:39] Well, that’s just amazing, and I love how these totally off the wall hypotheses, you know, when they first come out, people think they’re crazy and then it comes to pass, sometimes it doesn’t. But this field has certainly –


Dr. Clarice Aiello (Guest): [00:10:56] If if I can make a another comment.


Dr. Janis Weeks (Host): [00:11:00] Sure.


Dr. Clarice Aiello (Guest): [00:11:00] To address your question of what we do in the lab.


Dr. Janis Weeks (Host): [00:11:03] Yeah!


Dr. Clarice Aiello (Guest): [00:11:03] So right now, there’s a lot of evidence that this is, that spin physics might be relevant for biology at two different land scales. There’s a lot of evidence at the level of spins inside proteins with proteins in the test tube that are unambiguous that those proteins are acting for a short time as living quantum sensors. But the next step in the scales are for experiments with birds. When birds during migration season, people put birds in cages and want to see which way the birds go out, and then they mess up with magnetic fields and the birds go to a different direction. But there’s nothing in between, right? It’s very hard to say that, well, the bird is is behaving this way because of this quantum process that is proven at the level of protein. So what we do in our lab is try to bridge those two landscapes we want to go like from bottom up and try to do quantum inspired experiments with, say, proteins inside a single cells and then a couple of cells and then going through the tissue level. So to cut the long story short. What we have in our lab are glorified microscopes to see the cells, to see the proteins with coils. And the coils are the ones that shift, can shift the spins up and down to to to change the balance of chemical reactions.


Dr. Janis Weeks (Host): [00:12:28] Wow, I would love to see that. So one thing I mean, I’m a biologist at heart, and I just love that these effects are implicated in, say animal behavior and things like that. And I think just on their own, that’s so interesting and valuable to know that that why would we need more? But we always need to look for applications and, you know, how this can be expanded out more broadly. So what what are you working on or what are the opportunities for applications of this knowledge?


Dr. Clarice Aiello (Guest): [00:13:03] So I think there are two main applications of this – of our research. The first is more technological, right? If nature is using quantum mechanics to function, it knows darn well how to deal with noise, right? Because light happens at room temperature. So I think technologically, I’m not saying let’s replace Google’s beautiful quantum computer with the molecule, but, can we learn with nature strategies on how to deal with noise and then apply on top of, quantum technologies, right, that’s one side of things. The other side that I find this extremely exciting is – it’s not going to happen in 10 years, 20 years, but maybe 30 or 50 years. Can we learn to control quantum mechanical degrees of freedom in biology to sort of shift physiological behaviors, right? For example, there’s evidence now that the production of reactive oxygen species is mediated by magnetic field in a way that is consistent with the spin model. Right. So can we learn how to apply systematically, oh, a certain magnetic field strength or frequency in order to drive physiological processes related to disease or related to other physiological pathways that might have those spin dependent chemical reactions?


Dr. Janis Weeks (Host): [00:14:24] Um, right, I have a question that actually is not on the list, but so, you know, there are magnetic fields all around us, both from the Earth and other devices. I mean, what what’s known about the possible interaction of those exogenous sources or potentially disrupting, you know, what’s supposed to be happening biologically?


Dr. Clarice Aiello (Guest): [00:14:47] It’s not known much. And I’m a huge advocate for more research in this field, right? In particular, for reasons that I won’t go into, this particular process that I describe it to you: the spin dependent chemical reactions, it’s the stuff of low magnetic field intensities, right? In the sense that this particular phenomena is not going to happen inside an MRI machine, but it’s going to happen at magnetic fields close to the strength of the Earth, close to the strength of this guy. So I’m not saying to anyone to be, to be afraid of your direction of –


Dr. Janis Weeks (Host): [00:15:27] – paranoid.


Dr. Clarice Aiello (Guest): [00:15:28] uh huh, paranoid, but I really think that there’s a lot of research that should be done, and should be funded, to deal with the effect of those small magnetic fields that we’re in contact with all around us.


Dr. Janis Weeks (Host): [00:15:44] Let’s see, we have three minutes left, wow, time goes so quickly, so yeah, so your lab at UCLA is the only QuBIT lab in the U.S., but you’ve obviously studied in a number of locations, countries and all over the world. So what’s the state of this field around the world as well as your own lab?


Dr. Clarice Aiello (Guest): [00:16:08] So the U.S. has been a little bit behind the field of quantum biology. There have been quantum biology centers in the UK, in Germany, in Japan, in Korea, in Denmark now. So there hasn’t been a lot of of of activity in quantum biology in the US, apart from some disjointed efforts, right? So I’m happy to say that actually, it’s official as of today. We are launching out of UCLA, the first US-based quantum biology center. And the mission of the center, I’m Director, is going to be to educate people on this field and actually build community, strengthening community, so that we can bring quantum biology to the mainstream, right. To, to encourage young talent to come into this area, to encourage funding agencies to start looking at those issues. So I’m very excited that that we’re starting a new journey here.


Dr. Janis Weeks (Host): [00:17:11] And now, I mean, in that field, I mean, you’re presumably working and recruiting physicists and engineers and biologists, chemists.


Dr. Clarice Aiello (Guest): [00:17:18] Yes,


Dr. Janis Weeks (Host): [00:17:19] All of those areas. So it’s like this incredible mishmash.


Dr. Clarice Aiello (Guest): [00:17:24] Yes!


Dr. Janis Weeks (Host): [00:17:24] Of of intersection versions of fields.


Dr. Clarice Aiello (Guest): [00:17:28] Yes, that’s both a challenge and what I like about my work because we need to be comfortable with being uncomfortable because no one knows everything, right? So I’m learning all the time. I’m teaching all the time. So I think it’s a very interesting field of of of research. Interdisciplinary science, it is something that is, that I think is going to drive science forward in the near future.


Dr. Janis Weeks (Host): [00:17:55] All right, we have a little over a minute, so instead of me asking you something. Why don’t- is there anything that we haven’t covered that you’d like to get out to our audience?


Dr. Clarice Aiello (Guest): [00:18:05] Yes, I would like to encourage everyone out there to be curious, to remain curious. And the other thing is, if you can, try to learn a little bit about quantum mechanics, I think quantum mechanics is – actually we already live in a quantum world, right? So a little bit of knowledge about quantum mechanics goes a long way and helps you understand a lot of technologies that that we’re already familiar with. And and it’s fun. It’s very fun.


Dr. Janis Weeks (Host): [00:18:36] Oh, it sounds super fun. Yeah. Ok, well, on that note, we just stop my phone. So it doesn’t buzz. Clarice, thank you so much for taking time out of your busy day and lab to spend these 17 minutes with us. It’s been a thrill. I haven’t thought about quantum mechanics for a long time and now I will. So thanks so much and all the best with your work and congrats on the new center. That’s awesome. And so we’ll look for more great things coming from from your group.


Dr. Clarice Aiello (Guest): [00:19:11] Thank you. And super pleasure to be here on Seventeen Minutes of Science. Thank you, Janis, for your time and Hannah for organizing this and all the people in the background. Thank you all.


Dr. Janis Weeks (Host): [00:19:22] Yeah.


Dr. Clarice Aiello (Guest): [00:19:23]  And made the quantum be with you.


Dr. Janis Weeks (Host): [00:19:24] May the quantum be with you. Yes, I need a little arrow, but yes, exactly. Ok, well, everybody. Thanks again, Clarice. Thanks all of you who are out there watching us live. And let me just remind you, we’ll be back on the air in two weeks with another episode of 17 Minutes of Science.

About The Author

Hannah Huston

Hannah is the Marketing Manager at InVivo Biosystems. She received her Bachelor of Science in Science & Management specializing in Biotechnology from Scripps College in 2017. She has been with InVivo Biosystems since June of 2018. Outside of work Hannah coaches youth soccer and enjoys being active and outside with her dog, Siri.

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