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The bizarre rules of quantum physics are often thought to be restricted to the

microworld, but scientists now suspect they may play an important role in the bi
ology of life.
Evidence is growing for the involvement of quantum mechanics in a wide range of
biological processes, including photosynthesis, bird migration, the sense of sme
ll, and possibly even the origin of life.
These and other mysteries were the topic of a panel lecture June 1 held here at
the Kaye Playhouse at Hunter College, part of the fifth annual World Science Fes
Quantum mechanics refers to the strange set of rules that governs the behavior o
f subatomic particles, which can travel through walls, behave like waves and sta
y connected over vast distances. [Stunning Photos of the Very Small]
"Quantum mechanics is weird, that's its defining characteristic. It's funky and
strange," said MIT mechanical engineer Seth Lloyd.
These oddities generally don't affect everyday macroscopic objects, which are th
ought to be too hot and wet for delicate quantum states to withstand. But it see
ms nature may have found ways to harness quantum mechanics to power some of its
most complex and vital systems.
"Life is made out of atoms and atoms behave quantum mechanically," said cosmolog
ist Paul Davies of Arizona State University. "Life has been around for a long ti
3.5 billion years on this planet at least
and there's plenty of time to learn
some quantum trickery if it confers an advantage."
Bird brains
One area where clues are implicating quantum mechanics is the internal compasses
of birds and other migratory animals. Many bird species migrate thousands of mi
les every year to return not just to the same region, but to the exact same bree
ding spot.
For ages, scientists have puzzled how birds could achieve such a feat of navigat
ion, assuming they possess some ability to sense direction based on Earth's magn
etic field.
"We see clearly they can detect the magnetic field," said University of Californ
ia, Irvine, biophysicist Thorsten Ritz. "What we cannot do is say, 'This is the
magnetic organ.'"
Mounting evidence now suggests birds may be relying on quantum entanglement
strange ability of particles to share properties even when separated, so that if
an action is performed on one, the other feels its consequences.
Scientists think the process is made possible by a protein inside birds' eye cel
ls called cryptochrome.
When green light passes into the bird's eye, it hits cryptochrome, which gives a
n energy boost to one of the electrons of an entangled pair, separating it from
its partner. In its new location, the electron experiences a slightly different
magnitude of Earth's magnetic field, and this alters the electron's spin. Birds
can use this information to build an internal map of Earth's magnetic field to f
igure out their position and direction.
"It's certainly very plausible," Lloyd said. "It sounded kind of crazy when I fi
rst heard it. We don't have direct experimental evidence, but it does make sense

The theory gained support from a recent experiment with fruit flies, which also
contain cryptochrome. When this light-detecting protein was extracted from the f
ruit flies, they lost their magnetic sensitivity and became discombobulated.
Sniffing scents
Another case where quantum mechanics may come to the rescue is the sense of smel
l. At first, biologists thought they understood smell through a simple model: Od
or molecules waft into the nose, and receptor molecules there bind to these mole
cules and identify them based on their particular shape.
But scientists realized that some odor molecules that have identical shapes have
completely different smells, due to a minute chemical change, such as a single
hydrogen atom in the molecule being replaced by a heavier version of hydrogen ca
lled deuterium. While this affects the weight of the molecule, it doesn't change
its shape, so it still fits into the receptor molecule in exactly the same way.
How, then, can olfactory systems sense the difference? The answer may lie in qua
ntum particles' ability to act like waves.
"The theory is that even if the shape of the molecule is the same, because it's
got this slight difference, it vibrates in a different fashion," Lloyd said. "An
d this kind of wavelike nature, which is a purely quantum kind of effect, someho
w this receptor is able to sense this vibrational difference."