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Quantum tunnelling in DNA

Tunnelling is a quantum phenomenon in which a particle is able to access a classically forbidden region. This often manifests as a “hopping” motion in which it appears that a particle has overcome an energy barrier which is greater than its kinetic energy. Studying quantum systems allows us to determine tunnelling rates and decide whether it is likely to happen.


In 1964, it was proposed by Per-Olov Löwdin [1] that quantum tunnelling can occur within the hydrogen bonds joining Watson-Crick nucleotide pairs. Since then, quantum tunneling has been explored as a mechanism at work in enzyme catalysis [2], olfaction [3], and other biological processes. Here at the Leverhulme Quantum Biology Doctoral Training Centre we use open quantum systems and density functional theory amongst other theoretical tools to make predictions about tunneling rates, and have experiments running in parallel to try and detect tunneling in the lab.

Research team

Jim Al-Khalili profile image

Professor Jim Al-Khalili

Distinguished Chair in Physics, Professor of Public Engagement in Science, Quantum Foundations and Technologies Research Group Leader

Suzie Hingley-Wilson profile image

Dr Suzie Hingley-Wilson

Lecturer in Bacteriology

Johnjoe McFadden profile image

Professor Johnjoe McFadden

Professor of Molecular Genetics, Associate Dean (International)

Andrea Rocco profile image

Dr Andrea Rocco

Associate Professor (Reader) in Physics and Mathematical Biology

Marco Sacchi profile image

Dr Marco Sacchi

Associate Professor and Royal Society University Research Fellow in Physical and Computational Chemistry, Theme Leader in Sustainable Energy and Materials Research

Daniel Whelligan profile image

Dr Daniel Whelligan

Senior Lecturer in Organic/Medicinal Chemistry


[1] Löwdin PO. Proton tunneling in DNA and its biological implications. Reviews of Modern Physics. 1963 Jul 1;35(3):724.

[2] Devault D, Parkes JH, Chance B. Electron tunnelling in cytochromes. Nature. 1967 Aug;215(5101):642.

[3] Bittner ER, Madalan A, Czader A, Roman G. Quantum origins of molecular recognition and olfaction in Drosophila. The Journal of Chemical Physics. 2012 Dec 14;137(22):22A551.

[4] Watson JD, Crick FH. Molecular structure of nucleic acids. Nature. 1953 Apr 25;171(4356):737-8.

[5] Godbeer AD, Al-Khalili JS, Stevenson PD. Modelling proton tunnelling in the adenine–thymine base pair. Physical Chemistry Chemical Physics. 2015;17(19):13034-44.

[6] Breuer HP, Petruccione F. The theory of open quantum systems. Oxford University Press on Demand; 2002.

[7] Caldeira AO, Leggett AJ. Path integral approach to quantum Brownian motion. Physica A: Statistical mechanics and its Applications. 1983 Sep 1;121(3):587-616.

[8] Klinman JP, Offenbacher AR. Understanding biological hydrogen transfer through the lens of temperature dependent kinetic isotope effects. Accounts of chemical research. 2018 Aug 28;51(9):1966-74.

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Leverhulme Quantum Biology Doctoral Training Centre (QB-DTC)
Robert Boyle (AZ) Building
University of Surrey
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