Quantum Biology and the Origin of Life
(Based on a presentation at the CRS Conference in 2021)
Could quantum mechanics have played a role in the origin of life? Two academics at the University of Surrey are at the forefront of researching this question. They are Johnjoe McFadden, professor of molecular genetics, and Jim Al-Khalili, theoretical physicist. Together they direct the world’s first doctoral training center dedicated to developing interdisciplinary scientists in the field of quantum biology. To these scientists, the answer to the question of how abiogenesis (chemical evolution) occurred lies in the notion that evolution needs a self-replicator. They propose that quantum mechanics helped mediate the search for a self-replicating proto-enzyme molecule in the alleged primordial soup.1 McFadden and Al-Khalili realize the shaky foundation their musings are built upon when they make the following concession: “Of course, any scenario involving quantum mechanics in the origin of life three billion years ago remains highly speculative.”2
Invoking quantum mechanics to explain the unexplainable
It behooves those considering quantum biology’s function in the origin of life to keep this admonition in mind. There are currently several competing interpretations for quantum mechanics (QM). Thus, using one debatable postulation like quantum coherence to explain another, like abiogenesis, only leads to more ambiguity.
McFadden and Al-Khalili collaborated on the popular 2014 book Life on the Edge, The Coming of Age of Quantum Biology. At times, the authors’ objective scientific reasoning gives way to faith in quantum mechanics as the naturalism-of-the gaps for evolutionary theory. This is clearly evidenced when McFadden and Al-Khalili make a statement of unshakable faith in their theory by saying that even when contemplating what a challenging job self-replication is without a living cell to achieve the feat, it must have been done billions of years ago, or we would not be here contemplating the problem today.3
Theoretical physicist David Griffiths expresses a well-founded cynicism toward invoking quantum mechanics to explain the unexplainable when he says, “In general, when you hear a physicist invoke the uncertainty principle, keep a hand on your wallet.”4
The book’s main thesis is that quantum coherence once played the kind of role in the origin of life as it currently does in living cells. In building their case, McFadden and Al-Khalili first cue the reader in on what quantum coherence is. One of the central ideas of quantum mechanics (QM) is wave-particle duality by which a particle can be described as a matter-wave. As such, quantum coherence refers to a situation in which the wave-like nature of a matter particle splits in two. These two waves then coherently interfere, such that their peaks and troughs coincide.
Mathematically, quantum coherence refers to a property of solutions to the Schrödinger wave equation. With this, we can describe a particle’s wave property as being in many different places or states at the same time, with different probabilities. As soon as the wave comes into contact with something else, it experiences decoherence by collapsing into a single particle at one location. Decoherence is thus the process whereby coherence is lost and the quantum becomes classical.
McFadden and Al-Khalili give a thorough and fascinating account of photosynthesis and catalysis, as well as avian navigation, as life processes in which quantum mechanics may play a role. As interesting and well-founded as these examples may be, they have nothing to do with producing life from nonlife. These researchers extrapolate the evidence for quantum effects in living organisms to wrongly infer that such effects could have been in play in the prebiotic world. This overreach is the main problem with their whole premise.
In their effort to overcome the impossible hurdles of obtaining life from non-living materials, McFadden and Al-Khalili favor the RNA world hypothesis. This is basically the idea that primordial chemical synthesis resulted in an RNA molecule that could act as both a gene for encoding, and as an enzyme for making copies of itself. RNA world advocates point out that there are different classes of particular RNA molecules known as ribozymes which can do one of these jobs or the other. So they propose that life on earth could have begun in an RNA world, without DNA and enzymes present at first. Those RNA molecules would presumably have eventually used proteins to improve their replication efficiency, leading to DNA and the first living cell over the course of time.5
But ribozymes have limited catalytic activity. In particular, they can’t couple energetically favourable and unfavourable reactions as protein enzymes can. Also, a given RNA molecule can’t both perform enzyme work and replicate. An enzyme needs a 3D structure produced by internal bonds between the RNA units. But then the units are blocked from bonding to new units, needed for replication.
Also, RNA and even its building blocks are very unstable.6 In fact, even DNA has been shown to be very unstable. Living creatures need many repair machines to overcome the damage. The 2015 Nobel Prize for Chemistry was awarded for this discovery.7 But RNA is 100× less stable than DNA. So if DNA is too unstable to support life without repair machines, a fortiori, a living RNA world in a primordial soup is chemically preposterous.
The futility of achieving abiogenesis by chance alone
However, those who consider the first self-replicator to be a ribozyme need to understand the odds against one of these molecules forming by chance alone. The well-known chemist Graham Cairns-Smith calculates an estimated probability of 1 in 10109 that a starting molecule would convert into RNA. McFadden and Al-Khalili acknowledge that there would need to be at least this number of starting molecules in the primordial soup. But the estimated number of fundamental particles in the entire universe is only about 1080. They thus make this remarkable admission:
“Clearly, we cannot rely on pure chance alone.”8
Here is where quantum mechanics comes to the rescue, as McFadden and Al-Khalili propose it to provide the search engine that could locate the correct configuration of nucleotide bases for a self-replicating proto-enzyme in the early earth.
A look at quantum computing “qubits” contributes to an understanding of this quantum search engine. In a classical computer, information is stored in a binary digit, or bit, which has a value of 0 or 1. The quantum computing equivalent of the bit is a qubit. Qubits can be in a quantum coherent superposition of both 1 and 0 at the same time, enabling them to carry out two calculations at once. Whereas the state of one classical bit has no influence on its neighbors, qubits may be quantum entangled, meaning that what happens to one affects them all, instantaneously. This means that the computational ability of entangled qubits increases exponentially with how many there are. In comparison, a classical computer’s calculating power increases only linearly with the number of bits. Though it would take a regular computer millions of years to crack the code of a high security encryption, a quantum computer can find the right answer in mere minutes.
McFadden and Al-Khalili’s origin of life scenario reads like a game of make-believe in their book Life on the Edge. They give a succession of “imagine” imperatives that goes like this:
A warm little pond in which an RNA molecule might have formed within the pore of a rock billions of years ago.
The RNA molecule is a ribozyme with enzymatic activity but not yet self-replicating.
Classical energy barriers prevent some particles in this enzyme from moving to different positions.
There are 64 protons and electrons in the ribozyme that can quantum tunnel into one of two positions, giving 264 possible configurations.
Only one of these configurations can become a self-replicating enzyme.9
Then if the state of quantum coherence survived long enough (and that’s a big if, as we shall see), it allegedly could have acted as a 64-qubit quantum computer, existing in all its possible configurations simultaneously. The configuration will collapse in decoherence quickly into one state or the other. There is an estimated 264 (1 in 1019) chance of the collapse hitting a self-replicator configuration. If this good fortune does not occur, as the story goes, the cycle of quantum coherence and decoherence continues. If the collapse does happen to hit a self-replicator, against all odds, then the act of replication will force the system into an irreversible transition into the classical world. Thus the quantum coin is said to be continually tossed by the processes of coherence and decoherence, processes that are far more rapid than the classical making and breaking of chemical bonds. With this the problem of searching for a self-replicator molecule is potentially solved. Quantum biology needs its proto-ribozyme to be in a state of coherence of its trillions of different configurations to make the emergence of life from nonlife a lot more likely than by pure chance alone.10
The overreach of using quantum mechanics to breach the gap
But the road to abiogenesis via quantum mechanics is scattered with many difficult bumps for its travelers. The key factor in quantum mechanics is that if you want to retain the quantum features of particles, you’ve got to keep the wave-like nature undisturbed. Physicists must work in very specific conditions when dealing with quantum mechanical effects.
For example, to maintain qubit coherence for computing with only a handful of atoms, they must cool the system to within a fraction of a degree above absolute zero. Then the apparatus must be surrounded with extensive lagging to shut out environmental influence. We must understand that the warmer the environment is, the quicker the quantum effects disappear.
On this point, McFadden and Al-Khalili remark that within living systems that have been subject to 3.5 billion years of optimizing evolution, it is likely that life has learned to manipulate quantum systems to its advantage in ways we do not yet fully understand. In their minds, since there is strong evidence that in certain phenomena quantum coherence persists in cells, then biological systems must be doing something special to stave off decoherence.11
And yet there is an obvious overreach in the implications of this claim. The prebiotic soup would not have had any life to keep decoherence at bay. This observation makes all the evidence that McFadden and Al-Khalili give for quantum effects in living cells moot to help explain the origin of life.
The uniqueness of life poses another problem that McFadden’s and Al-Khalili’s quantum-enhanced RNA world hypothesis does not address at all. In all living things, proteins are made of only left-handed amino acids, while only right-handed sugars make up the backbone of the DNA/RNA molecule. This vital property of life is called homochirality. Suppose that quantum coherence did locate an isolated self-replicating enzyme in the primordial soup, against all odds. It would not be able to replicate by itself. There must be activated12 homochiral building blocks around with which to replicate itself. But this does not happen in nature. Biologically unaided chemistry produces a 50:50 mix of left and right-handed forms. Thus, the origin of homochirality in living organisms is a complete mystery to evolutionists.13
In the end, when it comes to rescuing abiogenesis from impossible odds, we are faced with a choice. We can wave our magic wand and say that quantum coherence was present in non-living matter to mediate the search for a self-replicating ribozyme in the alleged primordial soup. Or we can trust the Creator when He tells us in the first chapter of Genesis that it was He who created every living thing on the earth and in the sea.
References and notes
- Although the idea of a primordial soup is part of popular culture, most would be surprised that there is not the slightest evidence that one ever existed. Such a soup was supposed to be the source of the essential nitrogen-containing amino acids and nucleotides. So if it existed, then evolutionary geologists should find some massive deposits rich in nitrogen in what they claim are very early rocks. Yet there is hardly any nitrogen in what they call the earliest organic materials—only about 0.015%. Two geochemists pointed this out 50 years ago, and nothing has changed: “If there ever was a primitive soup, then we would expect to find at least somewhere on this planet either massive sediments containing enormous amounts of the various nitrogenous organic compounds, acids, purines, pyrimidines, and the like; or in much metamorphosed sediments we should find vast amounts of nitrogenous cokes. In fact no such materials have been found anywhere on earth.” Brooks, J., and Shaw, G., Origins and Development of Living Systems, Academic Press, London and New York, 1973 (emphasis added). Return to text.
- McFadden, J. and Al-Khalili, J., Life on the Edge: The Coming of Age of Quantum Biology, New York: Broadway Books, p. 288, 2014. Return to text.
- Ref. 1, p. 281 Return to text.
- Griffiths, D. Introduction to Elementary Particles (2nd, revised edition), Weinheim, Germany: WILEY-VCH Verlag GmbH & Co. KGaA, comment on Problem 1.2, p. 56, 2008. Return to text.
- Ref. 1, p. 277. Return to text.
- Sarfati, J., Origin of life: instability of building blocks, J Creation 13(2):124–127, 1999; creation.com/blocks. Return to text.
- Batten, D., DNA repair mechanisms ‘shout’ creation, Creation 38(2):56, April 2016; creation.com/dna-repair-shouts. Return to text.
- Ref. 1, p. 280. Return to text.
- Ref. 1, pp. 283–284. Return to text.
- See a similar discussion on quantum computing’s attempts to solve the mystery of correct protein folding: O’Brien, J., Fast folding: Cells perform a truly amazing feat … and have from the beginning, Creation 44(4):50–51, 2022. Return to text.
- McFadden, J. and Al-Khalili, J., The origins of quantum biology, Proc. Royal Society A: Mathematical, Physical and Engineering Sciences 474(2220):20180674, 2018 | doi:10.1098/rspa.2018.067. Return to text.
- Sarfati, J., Origin of life: the polymerization problem, J. Creation 12(3):281–284, 1998, updated 2014; creation.com/polymer. Return to text.
- Sarfati, J., Origin of life: the chirality problem, J. Creation 12(3):263–266, 1998, updated 2021; creation.com/chirality. See also the four-part series on chirality by Dr Royal Truman, J. Creation 36(2) and 36(3), 2022. Two are available online: Can ligating homochiral polypeptides explain the origin of homochiral biomolecules? and Racemization of amino acids under natural conditions: part 1. Return to text.