Quantum biology: Physics tricks from microbes, slime and flies

Quantum physics is a strange world where, for example, very small particles can be in two places at once. Now, scientists are discovering that living things have been using quantum physics tricks for millions of year. Quirks & Quarks explores how, why and what it means.

Quantum physics is a bizarre world where very small particles can be in two places at once and can pass through barriers that should be impenetrable. You can imagine how such tricks could come in handy, but physicists have long believed they don't work very well in the living world of plants, animals, and microbes.

"It's hard to make things behave in a very quantum-mechanical way when they're hot and wet, and biological systems are famously hot and wet," Seth Lloyd, an engineering professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, told CBC's Quirks & Quarks.

Experiments with fruit flies suggest their sense of smell may rely on detecting the quantum fingerprints of different molecules. (Mr.Checker/Wikimedia Commons)

However, surprising recent research by scientists such as Greg Scholes, a chemistry professor at the University of Toronto, suggests that nature has found ways to make use of quantum physics in photosynthesis, the sense of smell, and possibly other biological functions.

Lloyd, Scholes and Jennifer Brookes, a researcher at Harvard University, talk to Quirks & Quarks about the quirks of quantum physics, how and why they're being used by living things, and how scientists are trying to learn from biology to make the next quantum leap in technology.