At the smallest of scales, the laws of physics as proposed by Sir Isaac Newton famously break down. Pairs of particles are intrinsically linked across improbable distances. Other particles seem to be in two places at once. Certain events have to be described in terms of their probabilities of happening.
Knowledge about quantum mechanics, the principles of that strange subatomic world, has led to new technologies. Some are exotic, such as quantum computers that are beginning to solve “impossible” problems. Others are present in our everyday life, such as the touchscreen of a smartphone.
The possible quantum underpinnings of biological processes are the focus of an emerging area of interdisciplinary research. While recent years have seen academic centers specializing in the quantum biosciences spring up in countries such as the UK, Germany, South Korea, Denmark and Japan, the U.S. has lacked such a hub — until now.
California NanoSystems Institute has launched the Quantum Biology Center at UCLA, with the goal to train students and early-career scientists and engineers, to foster interdisciplinary research collaborations and to promote scientific networking. The center will be led by Clarice D. Aiello, a CNSI member and UCLA assistant professor of electrical and computer engineering in the UCLA Samueli School of Engineering. Initial financial support for the center comes from the National Science Foundation, the Kavli Foundation, the Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation, and the D’Or Institute for Research and Education.
“The new quantum biology center is a groundbreaking endeavor, and Professor Aiello is well-suited to lead the charge, with her pioneering investigations and her commitment to fostering collaborations that bridge fields,” said Jeff F. Miller, UCLA’s Fred Kavli Professor of NanoSystems Sciences and the director of the CNSI. “We’re proud to be partnering with her to stimulate progress in an area with so many fascinating questions and future applications.”
Ideas toward applying knowledge from quantum biology tend to concentrate on two main areas.
One is bio-inspired engineering, wherein the design of new technologies is informed by the understanding of how nature has engineered living things. So, for instance, some studies look into the extent to which quantum effects are behind the navigation of birds, turtles and insects using the Earth’s weak magnetic field. If so, insights about how those effects work could potentially be translated into electromagnetic sensors with unprecedented sensitivity and high resilience to noise — because nature-made sensors work well in various environments.
The other thrust delves into whether the physiology of humans and other organisms can be influenced by manipulating quantum effects. An example comes from early evidence that certain elements of cellular metabolism are affected by electromagnetic waves in a way that is consistent with a quantum model. Revealing the underlying mechanisms may have implications for new ways of treating and diagnosing disease.
“Quantum biology is a realm of study that holds great promise for both fundamental discovery and technological innovation,” said Roger Wakimoto, UCLA’s vice chancellor for research. “The launch of this center is the latest illustration of how UCLA defines the leading edge of exploration and invention.”
The Quantum Biology Center at UCLA will begin its training programs by creating academic conferences focused on the field. Aiello also plans to develop a multidisciplinary summer school, initially to be conducted online. The initiative is partially inspired by summer sessions at the Marine Biological Laboratory at Woods Hole, Massachusetts, which offer intensive, hands-on courses for students and postdoctoral researchers. Efforts to cultivate a scientific network around quantum biology build upon those already underway.
“We need young, diverse interdisciplinary scientists coming into the field,” said Aiello. “We need people in different fields who are comfortable communicating with one another. The center’s mission will be accomplished if our quantum biology trainees candidly ask questions and explore connections between fields.”
Research activities at the center will be organized according to scale, ranging from nanoscale investigations examining phenomena at or below the scale of one-billionth of a meter, to physiological and clinical research examining whole organisms. The crucial intermediate scale — the least-studied — involves cellular activity and device engineering.
The center has attracted interest from faculty around UCLA — in disciplines such as bioengineering, chemistry, materials science, the life sciences and medicine — and across the country. Justin Caram, a UCLA assistant professor of chemistry and biochemistry, will play a key role in the development of the center.
“This is a community-building effort,” Aiello said. “Interdisciplinary research is all about making connections, and real breakthroughs often require you to veer into the interface of several different fields.”
Starting in April 2020, Aiello and her team have organized virtual weekly presentations about quantum biology research that regularly draw dozens of investigators from around the world. Additionally, in 2020 Aiello was appointed to a committee at the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine to coordinate a workshop on the use of quantum-enabled sensing, imaging and instrumentation technologies for biological applications.
The center’s research and education will rely upon a number of CNSI resources, including technology centers for microscopy, device fabrication and drug discovery. According to Aiello, CNSI offers a nurturing environment for the quantum biology center’s boundary-breaking work.
“CNSI is truly committed to investing in unprecedented interdisciplinary research in the nanosciences,” she said. “And it’s super cool when you have a fabrication facility for solid-state devices close by to, say, hardcore bioresearch — it gets people talking across disciplinary lines. I think CNSI is a great place to be, in terms of not being bound by silos.”