Clarice Aiello, a UCLA Electrical Engineering Faculty Member, on Quantum Biology

Clarice Aiello, a UCLA electrical engineering faculty member, is interviewed by Yuval Boger. Clarice and Yuval talk about her work in quantum biology, nature-made quantum sensors and their potential macroscopic biological impacts. They also explore the possible influence of weak magnetic fields on cellular function, a future where personalized magnetic fields could be used for specific health needs, and much more.

Full Transcript

Yuval Boger: Hello Clarice, and thank you for joining me today.

Clarice Aiello: Thank you for having me, Yuval. I’ve recently become a fan of your podcast, so I’m happy to be here and to be talking to the quantum enthusiast.

Yuval: Wonderful. So who are you and what do you do?

Clarice: I am faculty in electrical engineering at UCLA, trained as a quantum engineer. I work on, if you’re curious, in the past, I worked with technological quantum sensors. I am sure a lot of people here in this podcast know, but you can actually prove that if you use a quantum object as a sensor, your measurement is improved. In other words, the sensor quantumness enhances the measurement. So that’s what I used to do up to, say, six years ago.

But at some point, I realized that nature itself was producing sensors that all the time overperformed humankind-made sensors. And it turns out that there’s evidence that some of those sensors are bona fide nature-made quantum sensors. So I work in a field, an emerging field that is called quantum biology that aims to establish the extent to which endogenous or native quantum mechanical degrees of freedom in biology influence macroscopic biological function.

I’m an experimentalist, instrumentalist by training, so I build machines to study and control those degrees of freedom, quantum degrees of freedom in biological matter in the same way that you would control those quantum degrees of freedom, say, inside non-living matter.

Yuval: How about an example? So what biological process do you think or does academia think at the moment is influenced by a quantum process?

Clarice: Okay, I am sure you and a lot of folks here might have heard about the poster children of this field called quantum biology. Two very famous poster children of this field are photosynthesis and birds. So I don’t care about photosynthesis, I don’t care about birds, but they have the big advantage that they shifted this conversation from biology and chemistry to physics. So photosynthesis works better than any humankind-made solar cell. And now there is correlative evidence of why that might be.

I’ll talk a little bit about the evidence in a second, but there’s correlative evidence that photosynthesis works by employing some type of noise-assisted quantum process in which phonons actually help the transport of the energy of the photon that is absorbed by plants from the place where the photon is absorbed until the place where this energy gets dumped.

The second poster child of quantum biology is again birds. Birds have been known for more than 50 years to navigate using at least as a partial cue the magnetic field of the earth that is known, well which is like orders of magnitude smaller than the magnetic field produced by your cell phone. So today the standing hypothesis on how they do this is by employing a type of, and I’m going to be repeating this a lot of times, by employing a type of electron spin-dependent chemical reaction. So if that’s okay, I’ll explain a little bit what I mean.

In test tube chemistry, there is absolutely no doubt that that’s what’s going on in

certain chemical reactions.. So here’s the deal. And in certain cases, there’s a chemical reaction happening and at some point, the chemical reaction comes to a crossroads. At that point, the chemical reaction effectively looks for the electron spin of a particular electron. And if the spin is up, or when I talk to physicists, I say if the spin is measured by the environment to be up, the chemical reaction continues to one path. If the spin is down or measured by the environment to be down, the chemical reaction continues to another path. importantly, the macroscopic final products of those two distinct paths are also distinct.

So there is no doubt that spin degrees of freedom that are very finicky actually influence the macroscopic final products of a class of chemical reactions. Now, if at the point that this chemical reaction is at a crossroads, this all-important electron spin sees, interacts, or senses a nearby magnetic field, there happens a process that is effectively indistinguishable from what quantum physicists would call quantum sensing. The electron spin relies on superposition to sense this magnetic field and this magnetic field will alter the probability of the spin being up or down. It’s in this sense that the magnetic field, via this quantum knob, also can alter the probability that one chemical path is taken or the other. And, whereas there is no doubt that this is what happens in test tube chemistry, the cool thing is that birds, for example, seem to respond to magnetic fields in a way that is consistent with this type of spin-dependent, the electron-superposition-dependent chemical reaction being active under physiological conditions inside the birds somewhere. And one cool thing that you need to know before I stop talking about birds is that it’s well understood in the spin physics of those chemical reactions in test tubes that the magnitude of the effect is not monotonically increasing or decreasing with magnetic field strengths for reasons that are well understood and that, for the experts, have to do with how the external magnetic field compares to nearby hyperfine interactions of this electron spin — just for the expert. The magnetic fields that can actually alter the macroscopic fate of chemical reactions are relatively small, on the order of the magnetic field of the earth, on the order of the magnetic field produced by your cell phone.

This also means that if you put the magnetosensitive proteins inside, like the three Tesla of a magnetic resonance imager in a hospital, the big three Tesla is not going to make a difference. The magnetic fields that make a difference are relatively small. So, the idea is that then birds and other organisms, in general, are reacting to magnetic fields to the extent that they are reacting to the different physiological concentrations of products coming from these electron-dependent chemical reactions.

Now I don’t care about birds. All I care about is that for more than 40 years, there is a wealth of unfortunately not very systematic data that shows that cellular function is macroscopically altered by weak magnetic fields in a way that is also consistent with this type of spin-dependent chemical reaction going on. And this ranges from DNA repair, regulation of cellular oxidants, regulation of cellular metabolism, regulation of cellular respiration, up and down-regulation of cellular proliferation, among others.

So what I care about is trying to understand deterministically this quantum knob that we might have in this spin degree of freedom that happens in a wealth of different electron spin-dependent chemical reactions that seems to be happening inside cells and understanding whether we can control those towards some sort of altering physiological course, for example, for future therapeutics and the like. So this is basically what I do.

Yuval: I want to make the distinction between the microscopic and the macroscopic, because when you started talking about chemical reactions at the atomic level, that’s where quantum effects happen, but then you spoke about birds that are, of course, much larger objects. How is that connection made between an electron spin in a bird to the bird knowing where to now?

Clarice: There is the problem. It’s very hard to study that. So evidence nowadays exists in test tube chemistry. And the next level of evidence is like for birds, for plates of thousands of cells, for like little organisms, there is no unambiguous confirmation or refutation of causality. There is just correlative data that those macroscopic physiological changes or behaviors seem to be driven by this type of spin-dependent chemical reaction active under the hood. For example, in the bird, there’s an idea of what the protein that can sustain this type of spin-dependent chemical reaction might be, but it’s very hard to map this causal network, right?

How does a spin-dependent chemical reaction that is probably altering protein conformation at the micro level, How does that translate to birds going right or left in the end? It’s not known. And that’s a problem.

So this is why in our lab, what we’re developing are experiments that bridge those two landscapes. We are still building experiments, but where we want to go is trying to start studying this type of spin-dependent chemical reaction, say, inside a single cell. And at the same time, read out by technique that I can explain in a second, read out how spins inside cells react to magnetic fields at very brief timescales and how this spin preparation translates downstream into cellular differences in cellular physiological phenomena using regular fluorescence microscopy techniques that people in biology have been using for decades.

It’s like in the same experiment, being able to initialize, manipulate and read out spin degrees of freedom. And once we learn how to do this, map out how those things are connected, and if we prepare a spin in a particular way, and manipulate it with magnetic fields, we can manipulate macroscopic physiology or not, in a way consistent with this theory of things that happen at the cellular level. So the experiments that we’re building, they really look like they’re glorified microscopes with coils, but they are synchronized down to the nanosecond. So it’s really what you would find in a quantum sensing-like lab, but our sample is biological, right? We work with proteins but in the near future, we will start working with cells, for example.

Yuval: So I have two questions. One, in your home, do you have a weak magnetic field because it’s helpful? And the second one, how does the dynamic behavior of the field, in your opinion, change the impact?

Clarice: So, then again, it’s crazy. That’s the point, the answer to your question is, it’s crazy. So first of all, the magnetic field of the Earth is not that constant. The magnetic field of the Earth, I think it varies between 30 and 60 micro Tesla, more or less and that already makes a difference. And birds also seem to track the direction of the magnetic field. So in the model, and again, those things you can model with tools from quantum physics, like the tools from open quantum systems in very simple ways. And those models already account for what happens in chemical reactions in test tubes. And there is a dependence on the model on magnetic field direction, frequency, and intensity. The other thing I want to mention is that if you grow cells, and grow stuff under very good Faraday cages, you mess up with biology big time.

So I have a friend, his name is Peter Fiierling. He is a researcher at TU Munich. He’s like a bona fide precision measurement physicist. What he does is for a living is building very good Faraday cages with all sorts of passive-active compensations. What he then does is he shoves ultra-cold atom experiments inside because you don’t want the magnetic field of the Earth to alter those experiments. So he started hearing about those things like, “Oh, magnetic field effects in biology.” So biologists convinced him to do an experiment in his lab.

So here’s what he did. So in his chamber, remember:  the magnetic field of the Earth is about 50 micro Tesla. Inside his chambers, the DC level of the magnetic field, about one or two nano Tesla, so very, very small. He grew tadpoles for two days under two conditions, and this has been reproduced by other groups and this seems to stand. It’s really, really crazy if you see the data. If you grow tadpoles, or frog embryos, for two days inside those chambers, one with a control where you apply a tiny magnetic field similar to the Earth’sinside, the tadpoles after two days are OK. In the other experiment, he grows the tadpoles just under a tiny nTesla-level magnetic field. You see like 40, 30 to 40 percent of embryo malformation in that the embryos get all deformed and are no longer viable.

There is other research saying that if you grow cells without the magnetic field of the Earth, you change epigenetics, you change like this type of biological process involved in how cells evolve or something. I’m not sure I’m the best person to explain epigenetics, but the absence of tiny magnetic fields one seems to be changing physiology big time. And this opens up all sorts of questions, starting with maybe space exploration. So can you reproduce on Mars, can you do space farming on Mars? The magnetic field of Mars is very weak. So how do we do this? And that’s something that I have actually been trying to tell NASA for some time now, that it’s not only microgravity, it’s not only cosmic radiation, we need to be thinking about different magnetic fields.

And no, I would not be worried about magnetic fields from the environment. So here’s the deal. The magnetic field specificity seems to be very large like each chemical reaction depends very precisely on being tuned by a certain magnetic field frequency and intensity. So it would be very bad luck if your cell phone manufacturer really hit that sweet spot to either make your cells behave worse or better. By just changing a small magnetic field, you can up and down-regulate processes. You can either increase or decrease the speed of cell proliferation, among others.

And this is already being deployed by some companies that have found non-deterministically some type of weak magnetic field that seems to medically, for example, alter the spread of one type of cancer. The most famous of these companies is Novocure which produces Optune. This company is now valued at $10 billion and they have found a fortuitous magnetic field that happens to downregulate, to actually decrease cell proliferation rates in a very specific type of cancer, in a way consistent with this type of independent chemical reaction. It’s really crazy because like magnetic field intensities involved are tiny and it seems to work and the company already valued at 10 billion dollars.

Yuval: How prevalent is this field of study of quantum-related biology? Are there thousands of researchers around the world or just a handful?

Clarice: So it’s growing. I hope your viewers won’t see this as heresy, but I think that quantum biology is today where quantum computing was, say, 30 years ago. There was a lot of theory and not a lot of groundbreaking experiments. I think that right now it’s sort of the same. There are a lot of quantum theorists involved in research in quantum biology, but up to now, almost all the experiments have been performed by biologists and chemists. Those experiments are hard, they’re beautiful. So imagine taking every migration season, taming like 20 birds during migration, and messing up with the magnetic field they experience. Those are hard, right? Those are beautiful. We should respect those types of experiments. They’re necessary and, still, I’m claiming they’re not sufficient. I think that the field will advance once we start applying bona fide quantum-like experimental techniques to try to control those quantum degrees of freedom in a biological matter in the same way that you would control a spin in diamond. So, oh, and there’s a lot of people in this field. There have been for, again, about 30 years or so.

Yuval: If you’re successful in the lab and the research that you’re doing, what do you expect to be able to achieve, say, in five years?

Clarice: In five years, I would like to be able to either establish or refute down to a quantifiable noise level the extent to which spin phenomena,  or weak magnetic field related to spin phenomena, can alter cellular function, either saying yes, we can see that it’s the spin doing this, or saying no, down to this noise level that is measurable, we don’t think it’s causal. Because I think that this will move the needle, this will make people pay attention, because all the data in quantum biology, for all the flavors of quantum biology, and there are many, it’s all correlational. It’s either data from chemistry that there’s no doubt there’s quantumness there at room temperature or there is data, macroscopic data that behaves in a correlative way. So where I want to be maybe not in five years but maybe in 25 years: I want to have a cell phone app. I’m serious about this. I want to have an app that you can go there and like today you need help with wound healing.

For example, wound healing depends on weak magnetic fields in a way consistent with this type of spin-dependent chemical reaction. You go to your app and say, “I need help today with  wound healing.” And then you click and your phone produces the exact magnetic field intensity and frequency that you need. And then you go with your phone close to your skin. So the technology to produce those magnetic fields, they’re already there. You don’t need anything else than a cell phone because all you need is the correct strength and frequency and strengths are weak on the order of those produced by your cell phone. What you need now is the deterministic, if you will, quantum codebook on which magnetic field influences which chemical reactions. For the quantum expert, I am maintaining that what you need is the knowledge of the local spin Hamiltonian to influence each electron spin degrees of freedom for each particular protein depending on what the protein is and where it is within the cell. And for this, you do need those big optical tables, those big synchronized beautiful quantum experiments. But the end product is easy. The hard part is finding this codebook.

Yuval: As we get to the end of our conversations today, I wanted to ask you a hypothetical. If you could have dinner with one of the quantum or I guess biology greats, dead or alive, who would that person be?

Clarice: Well, that is…I used to like Feynman a lot. Now Feynman has decreased a little bit in my priority scale. I would like to have dinner maybe with Schrodinger to inform him of how the world has evolved. So right now, when I teach my students, I no longer call Schrodinger’s equation Schrodinger’s equation because Schrodinger was a bad man by a lot of criteria. I teach my students the evolution equation.

So I would love to talk to Schrodinger to raise awareness of some of the bad things that he did and to show him that the world is evolving into other, more healthy directions towards people who study science and especially minorities in physics.

Yuval: So Schrodinger, not Tesla.

Clarice: No, no. No, but good one, good one too. And I think I would like to, okay, good one too, I would like to have dinner with both Feynman and Schrodinger and make the same exact comments about minorities in physics.

Yuval: Very good. Clarice, thank you so much for joining me today.

Clarice: Thank you for having me.