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Quantum tunneling makes DNA more unstable (scientificamerican.com)
38 points by LinuxBender on Sept 21, 2022 | hide | past | favorite | 49 comments

this will sound super unscientific (because it is) but I've always wondered if the body (or life in general) relies upon any unknown/undiscovered physical phenomena.

as in, if life is an emergent property of the universe, then surely it has all the tools of that universe at its disposal. Including ones we don't know about yet.

In the case of this article, it seems like quantum tunneling could be damaging to DNA. I wonder if any other aspect of life depends on quantum tunneling to function?

/end of gibberish. I'm out of my league here. Just having fun speculating.

> this will sound super unscientific (because it is) but I've always wondered if the body (or life in general) relies upon any unknown/undiscovered physical phenomena.

I strongly disagree that creatively speculating about the possible limits of our knowledge is unscientific. This type of thinking is essential for scientific discovery. The attitude that you are referencing is scientism, which is an irrational (and non-scientific) over-confidence in the power of our existing knowledge and authority figures in scientific fields.

Indeed, much of the mechanisms behind life remain a mystery, and could very well involve undiscovered physics. There's no way for us to know yet how much physics remains undiscovered. What if there are phenomena as important and fundamental as say, electricity that remains to be discovered? To me, as a researcher in biotech, I wouldn't be so surprised by such a thing, because of how frustratingly unpredictable living systems are... it would be fully consistent with what we see to have something really really big that we've been missing all along.

Chomsky's surprisingly insightful thinking on the limits of human knowledge, and the consequences: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=D5in5EdjhD0&t=2953s

There's a book called 'Quantum Evolution' by Johnjoe McFadden that tries to answer the question of what processes in biology exploit quantum effects.

An obvious one is photon capture in photosynthesis that seems to rely on quantum effects to transfer energy around the antenna complex. I'm no doubt mangling that explanation, so see :


This is not unscientific. Since we don't have a single unified and consistent theory of everything, it is very reasonable to suspect that not all laws of physics are known to us now. The quest to uncover the unknown laws is one of the major motivations to do basic scientific research. It is often done at the extremes: extremely high energy, extremely small scale, extremely large scale and many think we should try extremely complex systems of which life is an excellent example. There is absolutely no reason why evolution wouldn't take advantage of physical laws which we don't know or are unable to recognize.

For a random example of a physics article demonstrating such search, see https://physicstoday.scitation.org/doi/10.1063/PT.3.4546

Photosynthesis has long been suggested to be quantum in nature.


> I've always wondered if the body (or life in general) relies upon any unknown/undiscovered physical phenomena.

I mean, in the sense that we don't fully understand how many parts of cells work, definitely, but probably not in the sense of undiscovered physical underpinnings.

> I wonder if any other aspect of life depends on quantum tunneling to function?

Possibly! It may help birds navigate by magnetoperception: https://www.nature.com/articles/d41586-021-01725-1

To be frank “probably” is an exaggeration since we have no reason to make a suggestion either way

When I was a student, some known enzymes had a catalytic efficiency higher than the theoretical maximum (i.e. they were faster than kinetically perfect enzymes.

This has since been resolved by refining the model of substrate diffusion, but for years (decades?), it meant that some enzymes were using a mechanism that had not yet been discovered.

Edit: I just looked it up, and it appears at least one enzyme has exploited quantum tunnelling to achieve these impossiby-high production rates. That was taught to us as a fringe theory when I was a student.

Read Kant, this isn’t unscientific people who believe physics has to be the only source of answers are the unscientific ones.

Now claiming to have proof of this and not being able to prove it, that’s unscientific.

I've always wondered if the body (or life in general) relies upon any unknown/undiscovered physical phenomena

It does. It wasn't that long ago in the human story that we didn't know about/believe in viruses, bacteria, hydrogen, radiation, and a thousand other things.

It's always amusing to see people on HN claim that there's nothing big left to discover because science already has all the answers. No, it doesn't. Science is the search for answers.

Well, there was the bees: http://discovermagazine.com/1997/nov/quantumhoneybees1263/

and another poster mentioned the birds... https://www.wired.com/2011/01/quantum-birds/

There's been some hypotheses of photosynthesis relying on quantum effects to improve its efficiency but it's still contentious the last that I checked [1].

[1] https://physicsworld.com/a/is-photosynthesis-quantum-ish/

From what I remember, photosynthesis directly deals with photons, electrons (e-) , and protons (H+), so I'd say it's a quantum process to begin with?

Our sense of smell is still unknownish as to how we detect so many different smells without clogging up the smell receptors.

I’m an idealist, I believe space time is a creation of human minds etc. So take this as constructive criticism.

Science exists to help us understand the universe so please don’t talk out of your ass like this. Religion is at an all time low because the religious talk out of their ass about easy to disprove shit like this. God doesn’t rely on trickery he’s the greatest architect their ever was.

So yeah, we most certainly know how the sense of smell works this is HN half of us write classifiers for fun or profit.

The olfactory system is in fact rather extensively studied.


There's also [Quantum Smell Theory](https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=DJsJIVXkrGQ) where quantum tunneling is proposed as the primary mechanism for detecting the shape of a molecule being smelled.

> then surely it has all the tools of that universe at its disposal.

Interesting proposal.

I honestly doubt it.

Black holes are tricky, for example. But some would say that “they are not exactly part of the universe”. Anyway I think time and space “break” inside of them, and those two are needed for Life, however you define it.

If nothing else, the ability to exist for more than ${radius of black hole, in light-seconds} seconds is necessary in order for evolution to work.

> I wonder if any other aspect of life depends on quantum tunneling to function?

Life has for sure adapted to quantum tunneling as part of the environment, since it plays a role in the rates of all the chemical reactions that sustain life.

> it seems like quantum tunneling could be damaging to DNA

Copy errors are not the same as damage. Or "the optimal amount of copy-errors is non-zero".

Doesn’t even have to be an unknown effect, just known effects we’re not aware are at work would be a huge discovery.

Having an hypothesis isn't unscientific. You just need to make it testable.

I remember reading somewhere about our brain synapses exhibiting quantum effects

I like to speculate about quantum consciousness and that our brains are not closed systems.

I cannot edit my comment but for those that are not familiar

> The quantum mind or quantum consciousness is a group of hypotheses proposing that classical mechanics cannot explain consciousness. It posits that quantum-mechanical phenomena, such as entanglement and superposition, may play an important part in the brain's function and could explain consciousness.


I think Qualia depends on things that are wholly outside the realm of physical phenomena, in that they come before physics.

I don't think the two are really in conflict.

That said, all the quantum stuff is incredibly beyond me.

> That said, all the quantum stuff is incredibly beyond me.

QED[1] will make it as clear to you as possible. Feynman conceived it as, paraphrasing, "explaining quantum physics to a housewife" which to our ear sounds vaguely offensive, but charitably construed for the time in which he said it means making it accessible to someone who has a lot of other responsibilities and doesn't have a ton of time to dedicate to learning advanced physics. It's a really neat book in that it explains the principles pretty much perfectly, while eliding the advanced techniques needed for practical computation of predictions. The analogy given is that you could teach someone to do calculus with nothing more than jars of rocks. It wouldn't be efficient, but it would be correct. "Rock" incidentally, is the Latin root for calculus.

If you find the role of the complex numbers as fascinating as I did, then Visual Complex Analysis[2] is another great read. It's considerably more challenging than QED, but on the other hand it clarified a bunch of things for me that my high school and college mathematics courses failed to explain and just presented as givens.

[1] https://www.goodreads.com/book/show/202469.Quantum_Electrody...

[2] https://www.goodreads.com/en/book/show/149800.Visual_Complex...

We have massive datasets on mutations, and looking at the mutational signatures, there is no evidence that this plays any detectable role in practice, here's some different articles studying such things:

https://www.nature.com/articles/nature12477 https://www.pnas.org/doi/10.1073/pnas.1210309109 https://www.science.org/doi/10.1126/science.aba7408

The known mutational processes entirely dominate the picture as one can see.

The latter two are better links than the first- since the first appears to be sampling from cancer genomes, which probably don't have precisely the same mutational spectrum as typical genomes, especially after the repair machinery stops working.

This is a good excuse to reinforce a basic point about quantum physics: regardless of pop explanations of things like the Copenhagen interpretation, consciousness clearly cannot possibly be essential to the phenomena it describes.

Quantum effects structure, explain, and influence ubiquitous and ancient parts of our world, like the periodic table and DNA. Things that have existed for billions of years without any conscious being observing them.

Unstable like how much? "prone to cancer", or unstable like "physical destruction due to DNA helixes ripped apart"?

The former, though likely still at a pretty low rate. These instabilities can result in mis-pairing at replication which results in a mutation in the replicated strand. Article suggests that this may be a significant source of mutations that was previously not considered.

Article says: We find it to be several orders of magnitude greater than the observed rate (10−8 per base pair) of spontaneous mutations through, for example, copying errors, suggesting that tautomerisation may well play an important role in point mutations.

The article suggests that it is a minor cause of point mutations.

Yes, I've been scouring TFA but what I wish to learn is:

What is the practical outcome of experiencing / accumulating said mutations?

In the vast majority of cases, nothing, as the mutations will likely be silent. In the worst case, a point mutation could possible lead to the development of a cancer. But remember, the article says this has been going on all the time as natural process. It's not new. So no increased risk from this process.

So if the final state of something as large as an amino acid pair at time of copying is determined by a single wave collapse... wouldn't that really mean that cancer generation is entirely avoided in some nontrivial subset of universes? (Hint: the subset you're reading this in, if you haven't had cancer?)

Brb, founding a quantum crystal healing startup.

Read up on quantum immortality.

If the universe you live in is getting increasingly surreal, be concerned. Universes where you survive a maximal time are likely to be wierd and not fun for you.

No, that’s not how it works. At every moment, the likelihood of future moments to be normal is overwhelming (even if you’re already 200 years old). But among all physically possible futures, there’s presumably always at least one where you continue living. And that future may be otherwise perfectly normal and non-weird except for the fact that you’re still living. Of course, there’s also always weird futures besides the non-weird ones. But there is no special correlation between overall-weird futures and futures where you continue living.

As an analogy, when you throw a coin repeatedly, there will be a world where you get tails a million times in a row. That doesn’t mean that there will be anything else weird in that world.

I guess it depends. Maybe there are worlds where, if you flipped wrong, humanity all dies horribly.

People alive in those worlds are much more likely to see runs of millions of flips than people alive in worlds where that's not true.

If you see a million heads, you might start to worry that you're in one of those very strange worlds (where your survival depends upon those flips). Maybe there are exponentially more worlds where humanity's survival depends on flipping heads then there are worlds where you just randomly got a million heads.

The other way things might get weird is if you have a run of, say, extremely near misses towards nuclear apocalypse. The more near misses, the more history has to appear to contort to avoid an apocalypse. If you have a bunch of those in your history, it's a bad sign- it means that your future is likely to involve either 1) an apocalypse or 2) an extremely weird avoidance of one, that is basically totally unpredictable. Maybe next time a cosmic ray will zap the guy giving the launch order.

That is, if you find yourself in universe with a weird history that's getting weirder, you might have reason to believe that that weirdness is actually less weird than nonexistence and things will keep getting weirder.

>> If you see a million heads, you might start to worry that you're in one of those very strange worlds (where your survival depends upon those flips)

I'm already in a world where even a slight wobble in my planet's orbit, or any asteroid changing course by a few inches per hour over the past million years, would have prevented my existence.

Then in the last 100 years we've been to the brink of nuclear annihilation at least three times... and shouldn't have survived.

And it's still getting weirder.

My fear once I realized this about 20 years ago was that I'd end up alone as the last living being on earth. And no matter how many cigarettes I smoke, it seems everyone else dies around me...

It isn't about probability at all. You live in the universe where you will survive maximally. That is fundimentally an unlikely state. You might have started in a "normalish" mainline universe, but you can't stay there and live "forever" too.

You don't get to start your quantum imortality path today, you were born on it the moment you first observed, and you are doomed to exist for the entire length of whatever the maximal path is.

Quantum imortality is existential horror fodder.

And if you can make consistent enough deathtraps you can perform any computation in it's validation time.

one sign for me that this may be true is that I invented the concept on my own decades ago and have watched it take over the public consciousness. I might just be living with other survivors who are also starting to catch on.

On the other hand it's about as solipsistic as you can get...

The idea is obvious enough that a lot of people are coming up with it on their own once they learn about Many-Worlds.

It's also fundimentally untestible. Makes for a wonderful psudoreligon.

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