MiS Seminar Series: Quantum Biology: radical pairs under the microscope


Wednesday, April 5, 2023 - 12:00 to 13:00




Speaker::Jonathan R. WOODWARD

Place: L4E01

Time: 12:00 - 13:00


Title: Quantum Biology: radical pairs under the microscope

Quantum mechanics is central to our understanding of both physics and chemistry, while in biology existing theories and models have largely treated biological systems as behaving according to the rules of classical physics. However, in recent years, across a range of different biological phenomena, scientists have started to understand that such a simplification may be masking some of biology’s most remarkable abilities, recently leading to the rise of a new interdisciplinary research area known as quantum biology.

I will begin the lecture with an introduction to this exciting new field and explain how some of the unique features of quantum mechanics can be manifest in real, functioning biological systems, far removed from the strict isolation and controlled conditions of a physics laboratory, and reveal how biology’s exploitation of these features can have a profound influence on how living organisms interact with and exploit their environments. By understanding how nature leverages these quantum advantages, we may unlock secrets to propel our own technological solutions to contemporary challenges.

In the 1970s, it was established that weak magnetic fields could alter chemical reactions proceeding through the formation of reaction intermediates known as spin-correlated radical pairs. The radical pair mechanism (RPM) is fundamentally quantum mechanical in nature, exploiting the properties of electron spin, and enables magnetic fields even as weak as that of the Earth’s to measurably affect chemical reaction rates and yields, despite the field inducing a change in energy of much less than the thermal energy.

The RPM is of particular interest in biology as it potentially lies at the heart of avian magnetoreception and similar abilities in many other animals. It has also been proposed as a potential mechanism of effects of electromagnetic fields on human health. It constitutes a true quantum biological phenomenon and has many potential future applications in biological sensing and imaging.

In the second part of the presentation I will introduce the radical pair mechanism and highlight some of its important characteristics before describing our research work in developing and employing microscope based approaches with sufficient time and spatial resolution and sensitivity to investigate RP spin and magnetic effects directly within living cells


Speaker Bio:

Jonny is a professor in the Graduate School of Arts and Sciences at the University of Tokyo, Japan. His research centers on the unique properties of ‘Spin Correlated Radical Pairs (SCRPs),’ which are short-lived intermediates in a range of chemical and biological reactions, and due to their quantum mechanical properties, show reactivity that can be influenced by  weak magnetic fields. This makes them one of the only known candidates capable of acting as a chemical or biological sensor of magnetic fields. Jonny's interdisciplinary research group develops new experimental methodologies to investigate the detailed properties and behaviour of photochemically generated SCRPs, starting from basic physics and applying these ideas to molecular and cell biology. He is particularly interested in the potential harmful or helpful effects of magnetic fields on the human body with an aim to characterize the roles played by SCRPs both in vitro and in vivo. Before joining the University of Tokyo in 2011, Jonny worked at Tokyo Institute of Technology (2008-2011) and before moving to Japan, established his research group at the University of Leicester in the UK (2001-2008) after postdoctoral fellowships at the University of Oxford, UK(2000-2001) and RIKEN (The Institute of Physical and Chemical Research), Japan (1998-2000). He obtained his DPhil in Physical Chemistry from the University of Oxford in 1998.



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