Quantum Mechanics: the Solution to DNA Mutation

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Quantum mechanics was founded by a collective of scientists in the 1920’s in order to unveil processes of life at their deepest level. Erwin Schrödinger, who was a founder of quantum mechanics published a book titled ‘What is Life?’ in 1944 where he claimed that at the molecular level, all living organisms had an inbuilt structure that differed the random motion of atoms and molecules in lifeless matter of the same complexity. He hypothesized that quantum mechanics held the key to unraveling the mysteries behind the processes of life and he was right.

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Quantum tunneling was one of the first major discoveries in quantum mechanics. Friedrich Hund discovered it in 1927 by firing waves at a barrier, predicting that none of them would be able to cross the barrier as classical laws of physics stated particles did not possess sufficient energy to penetrate the barrier but this was not the case. To his surprise, the particles crossed the barrier. This was later credited to a minute probability that the particles could ‘tunnel’ to the other side of the barrier using surrounding energy. But this isn’t just another discovery to add to the books. The notion that quantum mechanics could play a role in solving genetic mutation was initiated by Erwin Schrödinger who thought that “the inheritance of our genes from our parents is to be governed by the rules of classical mechanics and quantum mechanics must play a role in it” before the detailed structure DNA was discovered in 1953 by Francis Crick and James Watson. Like Schrödinger, nuclear physicist Jim Al Khalili and Johnjoe McFadden believe the key to understanding DNA mutation and in turn eradicating genetic disorders lies within quantum mechanics.

DNA is the essence of who we are. Every human is unique because of a 0.1% variation in our DNA, which is a double helix structure held together by hydrogen bonds. It is made of nucleotides which are organic molecules consisting of a phosphate group, a sugar group and 4 nitrogenous bases. The bases, adenine, guanine, cytosine and thymine are glued together by protons and arrange themselves in specific sequences. These sequences code for all the proteins that make up living organisms. A change in this code a mutation. Individual cells in our body consist of 3 billion nucleotides within each strand of DNA. The protons holding each nucleotide in place have wave-like properties, enabling them to change position through quantum tunneling. Protons display such abilities because at the subatomic level, all particles display a dual nature known as wave-duality because they have no definite position in space. This was proven by Young’s double slit experiment.

During cell division, DNA strands to separate in order to replicate themselves. In the event that the protons switch positions during the replication process, the DNA code is altered. Jim Al Khalili and his team at the University of Surrey are looking into the probability that protons will change positions during DNA replication and the process by which they change positions. Protons can change positions in 2 ways, they can jump across an energy barrier or they can tunnel through the barrier even though they don’t have enough energy. The ultimate aim of Al Khalili and McFadden’s team is to find out if the change in proton position can lead to cells turning cancerous as a result of mutation.

To decode the puzzle around DNA mutations, the team investigated the genetic makeup of M. tuberculosis, the bacterium responsible for tuberculosis. They discovered that in an environment almost completely devoid of oxygen, the bacteria could mutate, making it more fatal and this mutation seemed to occur at a higher rate than others. This goes against Charles Darwin’s evolution theory in which he claimed that although mutations were necessary to increase genetic variation, they should be random and no mutation should be more frequent than another. McFadden stated that “the study was absolutely heretical in the Darwinian sense.” The experiment concluded that a change in environment could trigger random and highly frequent mutations.

McFadden and Al Khalili are looking into how the mass of hydrogen atoms affect mutations. By initiating a series of tests on their mutation theory by comparing behaviors of normal and modified DNA where all hydrogen atoms will be replaced by deuterium atoms. They hypothesize that if the hydrogen atoms can tunnel quantum-mechanically to the wrong side of the DNA ladder, the rate of mutations can be predicted to be lower in modified DNA as compared to normal DNA as deuterium is heavier and thereby less likely to change position by quantum tunneling. However, it may take years to design and conduct these experiments.

Although research into DNA mutation is still in its infancy, its potential is obvious. Scientists are optimistic that when the specific nature genetic mutation is uncovered, all forms of cancer and genetic disorders can be eradicated once and for all. It’s only a matter of time before the mystery is unveiled.         

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