The birth of quantum biology

The birth of quantum biology

Summary: It's time to wake up and to see the arrival of a nascent field named quantum biology. This is the scientific study of biological processes in terms of quantum mechanics and it uses today's high-performance computers to precisely model these processes. And this is what researchers at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute (RPI) are doing, using powerful computer models to reveal biological mechanisms. Right now, they're working on a "nanoswitch" that might be used for a variety of applications, such as targeted drug delivery to sensors.

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Just when you finally have grasped the concept of quantum mechanics, it's time to wake up and to see the arrival of a nascent field named quantum biology. This is the scientific study of biological processes in terms of quantum mechanics and it uses today's high-performance computers to precisely model these processes. And this is what researchers at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute (RPI) are doing, using powerful computer models to reveal biological mechanisms. Right now, they're working on a "nanoswitch" that might be used for a variety of applications, such as targeted drug delivery to sensors.

Here is a couple of paragraphs of the RPI news release -- and I'm not sure of what they really mean.

The researchers describe a mechanism to explain how an intein -- a type of protein found in single-celled organisms and bacteria -- cuts itself out of the host protein and reconnects the two remaining strands. The intein breaks a protein sequence at two points: first the N-terminal, and then the C-terminal. This aspect of the project, which is led by Saroj Nayak, associate professor of physics, applied physics, and astronomy at Rensselaer, focuses on the C-terminal reaction.
Another Rensselaer team previously found that the reaction at the C-terminal speeds up in acidic environments. But to control the reaction and use it as a nanoswitch, a better understanding of the mechanism behind this reaction is needed, according to Philip Shemella, a doctoral student in physics at Rensselaer.

Below is an image showing the "intein crystal prior to protein splicing" (Credit: Rensselaer/Philip Shemella).

An intein crystal prior to protein splicing

Here is how Shemella explains how this protein could be used to become a "nanoswitch."

"You can use this protein that cuts itself and joins the pieces together in a predictable way," he said. "It already has a function that would be nice to harness for nanotechnology purposes." And because the reaction may be sensitive to light and other environmental stimuli, the process could become more than just a two-way switch between "on" and "off."

This research work was published by Biophysical Journal under the name "Mechanism for Intein C-Terminal Cleavage: A Proposal from Quantum Mechanical Calculations" (Volume 92, Issue 3, Pages 847-853, February 2007). Here is a link to the abstract.

And now, be sure to look at other quantum-based disciplines. They might surprise you, but they're coming...

Sources: Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute news release, January 16, 2007; and various other websites

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