“The allure of the unknown to me has always felt far more powerful than the comfort of the known”

I am a theoretical physicist currently doing research in the area of quantum biology. Biological systems are dynamical, constantly exchanging energy and matter with the environment in order to maintain the non-equilibrium state synonymous with living. Developments in observational techniques have allowed us to study biological dynamics on increasingly small scales. Such studies have revealed evidence of quantum mechanical effects, which cannot be accounted for by classical physics, in a range of biological processes. Quantum biology is the study of such processes.

The most well-established area in quantum biology is the study of photosynthesis. There exists a body of evidence that the primary photosynthetic processes of energy and charge transfer exhibit quantum mechanical properties essential for function and that cannot be described by classical physics.

During my PhD entitled “Quantum effects in photosynthesis” in the Quantum Research Group at the University of KwaZulu-Natal, together with my supervisors Prof. Francesco Petruccione and Dr. Ilya Sinayskiy, we investigated how the quantum mechanical phenomenon 'decoherence' can assist transport in the context of photosynthetic excitation energy transfer, as well as proposing the direct role of the quantum mechanical property 'spin' in a protective mechanism during photosynthetic charge transfer.

The identification of quantum effects in primitive photosynthetic organisms such as bacteria suggests that quantum effects may have played an important role in the emergence of the very first living systems from the inanimate matter of which they are constituted. A description of the emergence of life from the inanimate matter of which it is constituted is one of the greatest open problems in science.

The detection of the molecular precursors of life in interstellar ices suggests that the building blocks of life may have emerged in space and been delivered to Earth by objects such as comets or meteorites. Using techniques from open quantum systems approaches to quantum biology, we are now investigating the formation of the molecular precursors of life in the interstellar medium.

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