The National Quantum Initiative: What's in it for biophotonics?

With Congress having passed the National Quantum Initiative, yet another revolution in biomedical diagnostics, imaging, and sensing is on the horizon.

Susan Reiss 720

As evidenced by developments such as optical coherence tomography (OCT) and handheld fiber endoscopy, the field of biophotonics has grown, in part, by applying optical communications technologies to biology. Now, with Congressional passage of the National Quantum Initiative (NQI)—an 11-year effort to accelerate quantum research and development "for the economic and national security of the United States"—appearing imminent, yet another revolution in biomedical diagnostics, imaging, and sensing is on the horizon.

The NQI legislation provides $1.275 billion through the Department of Energy, the National Institute of Standards and Technology, and the National Science Foundation. While NQI emphasizes fundamental research in quantum science, it's likely that tools and technologies developed to pursue that research will offer new approaches to biology and provide insight into the role of quantum mechanics in living systems.

Quantum-entangled photons for bio

In recent years, optical scientists such as Northwestern University researcher Prem Kumar have begun probing quantum effects in biology. Recently, Kumar and his team reported creating quantum entanglement in a biological system. They used genetically engineered green fluorescent proteins (GFPs) to produce quantum-entangled photons from the fluorescing molecules. In their experiments, the generated photon pairs showed entanglement properties that could potentially be used for biomedical imaging in multiple scattering media.

This work could eventually enable a method for evolving biological systems to produce various quantum effects. Such systems offer an exciting new approach to practical biomimetic quantum networks, for instance, as well as quantum sensors.

Quantum effects in human cognition

Another effort, the $1.2 million Quantum Brain Project, or QuBrain, is spearheaded by physicist Matthew Fisher of the Kavli Institute for Theoretical Physics at the University of California, Santa Barbara. Fisher, who has spent his career immersed in the quantum realm, hopes to discover what role, if any, quantum effects play in human cognition.

This notion is not as far-fetched as it may seem. Over the past decade, researchers have discovered quantum components in photosynthesis, avian navigation, and human olfaction. Fisher's team will study the nuclear spins of phosphorus atoms, the dynamics and nuclear spin of Posner molecules (clusters of calcium and phosphorus atoms discovered in 1975 by Cornell University biochemist Aaron Posner), and the potential contribution of mitochondria to entanglement and their quantum coupling to neurons.

Funded by the Heising-Simons Foundation, QuBrain is just getting underway. "We'll get some answers whether affirmative or negative," Fisher says. "If quantum processing is occurring, we may be able to control some of the components and that could be important for treatment of psychiatric disorders."

NQI will enable more such projects, which will surely help the U.S. face increasing pressure from quantum R&D efforts in the European Union and China.

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