Open quantum systems in biology

One of the biggest unresolved mysteries in science is the way living organisms maintain their highly ordered, low entropy, far-from-equilibrium state inside living cells. Already, a number of examples in biology have been discovered that seem to need a helping quantum hand, making use of no-trivial quantum mechanisms, such as superposition, tunnelling and entanglement.

Living organisms behaviour inside living cells

To understand how life is able to maintain the delicate quantum coherences that allow for such behaviour at the molecular scale to have a functional role, we need to model them as open quantum systems strongly coupled to their surrounding environments.

In his 1944 book What is Life?, Erwin Schrödinger argued that organisms stay alive precisely by staving off equilibrium. It does this by taking in low entropy free energy from its environment. In this way, life is able to maintain structure and complexity. However, this ability must be traced down to the molecular level and, ultimately, the quantum domain. So, is there something even more profound going on inside living systems then the mere exploitation of the rules of quantum mechanics?

People involved

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

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

Paul Stevenson profile image

Professor Paul Stevenson

Professor of Physics, AWE William Penney Fellow

Cesare Tronci profile image

Dr Cesare Tronci

Associate Professor