From nanotech to living sensors
Clarice works on quantum effects related to biological phenomena, focusing on measurements of biological systems using quantum effects. Electron spin is one type of quantum mechanical property, and it appears to respond to magnetic fields. Extremely small diamond sensors can be constructed using electron spin to measure magnetic fields by utilizing crystal defects to absorb light and fluoresce based on spin. These sensors work at room temperature, which make them ideal for biological systems.
Certain chemical reactions can be altered by magnetic fields via altering the electron spin. It’s possible that birds and other organisms use these spin-dependent reactions to detect the orientation of earths magnetic field. There are three ways organisms are sensitive to magnetic fields – sharks and rays have conducting tubes which have voltages induced via crossing magnetic lines. Some bacteria have magnetite crystals that align with the magnetic field of the earth. These magnetite crystals need to be chunky in order to overcome thermal tumbling. Birds don’t seem to have these large magnetite crystals. The mechanism described by Clarice is that cryptochrome proteins alter chemical reactions based on electron spin, and cryptochrome is present in the retina of birds as well as the antennae of butterflies. Cryptochrome is also present in humans where it is used for circadian rhythm functions.
Experiments are being designed by Clarice to correlate spin physics and phenomena in living cells to further investigate this magnetic field detection concept. The next big challenge is to measure and control these interactions in vivo.
Evidence suggests spin dependent reactions are involved with reactive oxygen species production, respiration rates, glycolysis rates, stem-cell mediated growth, DNA repair, and morphology development. This may have space travel safety implications.
There is a lack of quantum people – people who build instruments – in the field of biology. There should be more general funding for quantum biology.