Quantum ‘weirdness’ used by plants, animals

November 8, 2010 | Source: CBC News

Bird navigation, plant photosynthesis and the human sense of smell all represent ways living things appear to exploit the oddities of quantum physics, according to Seth Lloyd, a professor of quantum mechanical engineering at MIT.

That means humans might be able to develop technology for more accurate sensors or far more efficient solar cells by mimicking the way living things use quantum physics, he said.

In the case of human smell, it appears that receptors are triggered in part by “phonons” — tiny vibrational phenomena that provide the extra energy needed to create a signal that we recognize as a scent.

“This process, which is called phonon-assisted tunnelling, is a purely quantum mechanical process,” Lloyd said. “It can’t be explained by ordinary classical models.”

Lloyd said quantum mechanics likely plays a key role in vision as well, because vision systems in animals are sensitive to individual quantum particles of light called photons. And some birds have an internal compass that helps them navigate, and it appears to make use of quantum entanglement.

Lloyd’s biological research, funded by the U.S. Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, looks at how living things use quantum computation.