Biophysics Miscellany

"I must confess that one reason we have undertaken this biological work is that we thereby have been able to get financial support for all of the work in the laboratory. As you know, it is much easier to get funds for medical research."

- Ernest Lawrence to Niels Bohr, 1935
     Ernest Lawrence and Niels Bohr, 1955


From the Editorial by R. V. Jones in Notes and Records of the Royal Society, 27 (1972).

Tizard told a salutary story of Rutherford, when he was presiding over a meeting of the [Royal] Society, and had been listening for half-an-hour to a young biologist reading a paper. When the paper was finished Rutherford said, "Before I invite discussion on this paper there is one remark I would like to make. I have listened to you, sir, for half-an-hour, and although I believe I am considered to be a fairly intelligent man I have not understood a word you said. Now, would you mind getting up again, and telling us in five minutes what you did, why you did it, and what results you got?"


From WHAT'S NEW by Robert L. Park - Friday, November 19, 2010

Last week in describing the search for extraterrestrial life I recounted the celebration in the Eagle pub of the discovery of the structure of DNA, as told by James Watson in The Double Helix. I got a couple of lines in response from Raynor Smith that put it in perspective. I posted it above my desk and now share with you: "These great men did indeed discover the secret of life. The secret is to gather with friends in a warm pub, and raise your glass to celebrate your accomplishments, and likewise those of your friends, whether large and earthshaking or small and humble."


Our very own Prof. Chris Bergevin is co-organizer of a conference on the Mechanics of Hearing. The conference is to held at June 19-24, 2017, at Brock University. Sounds like fun (pun intended).


Of course the central question is, What is biophysics? (from the Biophysics Journal, March, 2016). Another attempt at an answer is given in Physics and the cell. There is also The physics of life (January, 2016), (see rebuttal of this at Starlings' patterns are not spontaneous - March, 2016), Physical Models of Living Systems (January, 2015) - see author interview Questions and answers with Philip Nelson (January, 2015) - and Does cell biology need physicists? (January, 2011).

"Classical" physics - like fluid mechanics, thermodynamics, and electromagnetism - is useful in the description of a number of biological systems. The recent interest has centred around whether quantum phenomena play a role at the macroscopic level of, say, DNA (e.g., Does quantum entanglement in DNA synchronize the catalytic centers of type II restriction endonucleases?) or the cell. See also

There are a number of nice discussions of "Quantum Biology" in Photo-activated biological processes as quantum measurements (August, 2014), Vibrations, Quanta and Biology (July, 2013), Life and Quantum Biology, an Interdisciplinary Approach (September, 2011), Physics of life: The dawn of quantum biology (June, 2011), Quantum microbiology (March, 2011), Quantum physics meets biology (November, 2009), and The Quantum Life (July, 2009). As well there is a new (2014) book Life on the Edge: The Coming of Age of Quantum Biology which presumably explores this theme in depth. There are a number of talks and papers by Seth Lloyd of MIT on quantum effects in biology. See also When fluid dynamics mimic quantum mechanics, Searching for quantum physics in all the right places, Making big 'Schroedinger cats': Quantum research pushes boundary by testing micro theory for macro objects, and Two papers investigate the thermodynamics of quantum systems (July, 2013).

Some years ago I got interested in work being done to clarify how the eye works. I created a webpage - Biophysics Approach to the Eye - where I collected some articles on this topic.


It seems to me that the 2014 Nobel Prize for Chemistry is really (and ironically) for biophysics. Basically it is for an improved microscopic technique that allows for viewing viruses and even single molecules without destroying them. This allows for the collection of information about subcellular systems for the first time. See The Nobel Prize in Chemistry: Life in Sharp Focus, Nobel Prize in Chemistry: Celebrating optical nanoscopy, 2014 chemistry Nobel Laureates broke barriers in light microscopy, and Nobel Prize For Chemistry 2014: Eric Betzig, Stefan W. Hell And William E. Moerner Honored For Development Of Super-Resolved Fluorescence Microscopy.


One of the most intriguing possible applications of quantum physics to explain a biological process involves photosynthesis, Physicists took an early interest in photosynthesis as evidenced by the letter to Nature History: Photosynthesis and the Nobel physicist.


In photosynthesis sunlight is captured and transported by highly specialised antenna proteins. Surprisingly these proteins act as quantum machines and use a quantum transport mechanism to efficiently guide the light and finally store the energy in their reaction centres. Researchers from ICFO -- the Institute of Photonic Science in Barcelona - have for the first time tracked this energy flow in individual proteins and discovered that the quantum coherences makes the light flow in the antenna protein immune to the ubiquitous external natural turmoil. Credit: ICFO
This is further discussed in Two-dimensional electronic spectroscopy for the quantum-optics enthusiast (July, 2013) and Does electronic coherence in pigment-proteins facilitate energy transfer in photosynthesis?. The answer as of January 9, 2014 is "yes", at least according to the authors of Quantum mechanics explains efficiency of photosynthesis! (see also When is Biology Quantum?, February, 2015, and Quantized vibrations are essential to photosynthesis, say physicists, January 22, 2014) There was a talk at the March, 2014 American Physical Society Meeting by the above-mentioned Seth Lloyd entitled Quantum Life: How photosynthetic organisms use quantum coherence to enhance the efficiency of energy transport. There is also What does "quantum coherence " mean in photosynthesis?. A number of articles over the past few years have delved into the matter, including:

These papers describe how quantum coherence links molecules within light-harvesting proteins and that these links improve the efficiency of energy transfer. This idea that photosynthesis expoits quantum entanglement is not without controversy, however. A May, 2011 story exclaims Photosynthesis disentangled?. The main argument against it is reasonable in that it seems difficult to imagine that coherence can be maintained over such long distances (relatively speaking). This is addressed somewhat in Quantum illumination where they say that the "information-carrying benefits of entanglement can survive in a lossy environment - even if the entanglement itself does not." Entanglement between light and atoms was first observed in June of 2013 - see First entanglement between light and optical atomic coherence, and Entangled atom-photon pairs created on demand. For more technical discussions you can peruse the following: The understanding of the mechanism of photosynthesis was aided through results of the optical experiments described in The Quantum Dimension Of Photosynthesis and Laser Captures Photosynthesis in Action. This all reminds me of the words of Milton - "... thou Celestial light / Shine inward, and the mind through all her powers / Irradiate, there plant eyes, all mist from thence / Purge and disperse, that I may see and tell / Of things invisible to mortal sight."

Scientists have in recent years been looking at using photosynthesis to make fuel. The articles Artificial leaf jumps developmental hurdle (February, 2014) and Artificial leaves make fuel from sunlight (July, 2011) talk of how researchers in the US took important steps towards the creation of a commercially viable "artificial leaf" - a hypothetical device that can turn sunlight into electrical energy or fuel by mimicking some aspects of photosynthesis. Also see This is underlying theme of the novel Solar by Ian McEwan which I recommend reading (I enjoyed it!).

"Quantum coherence" may also play a role in other biological systems as discussed in Quantum biology: Do weird physics effects abound in nature? (January, 2013). Some specific examples (I don't think they're weird!) include Clearer Quantum Vision (January, 2014) and Light-gathering insects (November, 2012). There is really fascinating research into the possible quantum mechanical explanation of how birds use the Earth's magnetic field to figure out which direction to go when migrating. First have a look at Robust entanglement-based magnetic field sensor beyond the standard quantum limit (December, 2014). For details on bird migration and quantum effects see:


I have worked at a number of high-energy particle accelerators (also look at A primer on particle accelerators - July, 2016) and over the course of the years there has been found a number of unexpected applications for them. One set of examples is explored in a lecture I gave in the second year biophysics course on Biomedical Applications of Accelerators. Check out Five ways particle accelerators have changed the world (without a Higgs boson in sight) (February, 2016) and Ten things you might not know about particle accelerators (April, 2014) for a nice introduction to accelerators. Articles like Klystrons for industry (March, 2014), Primed: The smashing science behind particle accelerators (August, 2013) and Accelerating Particles Accelerates Science - With Big Benefits for Society (March, 2013) show that accelerator research feeds into more than just the biomedical industry. But even specifically for biomedical there is so-called proton therapy or "hadrotherapy". Further articles include Proton therapy enters precision phase (October, 2016), Accelerating the fight against cancer (October, 2014), Particle Beam Cancer Therapy: The Promise and Challenges (March, 2014) and Particle accelerators join fight against brain cancer (January, 2014), accelerator research is crucial. Even the engineers agreed that Particle therapy comes of age (December, 2010). For a bit of the history of hadrotherapy check out A lifetime in biophysics (August 26, 2014) which chronicles the life of Eleanor Blakely. Part of the problem for hadrotherapy applications is that accelerator facilities are just too big. But there have been advances in making compact accelerators which could be useful in medical applications. Recent articles include: