Scientists have long believed that “nuclear spin” has no impact on biological processes. But new research at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem has shown that certain isotopes behave differently due to their nuclear spin.
The atomic nucleus is a particle of subatomic scale that can be described by a set of “quantum properties.” One of them is called nuclear spin, which is related to the sensitivity of the nucleus to the effects of external magnetic fields.
The research team focused on stable oxygen isotopes (16O, 17O, and 18O) and found that nuclear spin significantly affects oxygen dynamics in chiral environments, especially in its transport.
Put a spin on it: How this process impacts life
The study highlights the importance of spin in the processes of life. Understanding and controlling spin could have a big impact on how living things work and might also help improve medical imaging and create new ways to treat illnesses.
“Chiral” is used to describe an object that is nonsuperimposable on its mirror image. As such, in a chiral environment, the different enantiomers (a pair of molecules existing in two forms that are mirror images of one another but cannot be superimposed one upon the other) will interact differently with the environment due to their different arrangements in space. This will lead to differences in reactions. A common chiral environment would be that of enzymes.
A research team led by Prof. Yossi Paltiel and his Hebrew University colleagues, together with groups from the Weizmann Institute of Science in Rehovot and Austria’s Institute of Science and Technology, discovered the influence of nuclear spin on biological processes. This discovery challenges long-held assumptions and opens up exciting possibilities for advancements in biotechnology and quantum biology.
The findings, just published in the prestigious Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS) under the title “Nuclear Spin Effects in Biological Processes,” have potential implications for controlled isotope separation and could revolutionize nuclear magnetic resonance (NMR) technology.
Paltiel was excited about the significance of these findings.
“Our research shows that nuclear spin plays a crucial role in biological processes, suggesting that its manipulation could lead to groundbreaking applications in biotechnology and quantum biology,” he said. “This could potentially revolutionize isotopic fractionation processes and unlock new possibilities in fields such as NMR.”
Researchers have been studying the “strange” behavior of tiny particles in living things, finding some places where quantum effects change biological processes. For example, in bird navigation, quantum effects might help some birds find their way in long journeys. Efficiently using sunlight for energy in plants is affected by quantum effects.
This connection between the tiny world of particles and living beings likely goes back billions of years when life began and molecules with a special shape called chirality appeared, the researchers said. Chirality is important because only molecules with the right shape can do the tasks they need to in living things.
The link between chirality quantum mechanics was found in “spin,” which is like a tiny magnetic property. Chiral molecules can interact differently with particles based on their spin, creating a phenomenon called chiral-induced spin selectivity (CISS).
The scientists found that spin affects tiny particles such as electrons in living processes involving chiral molecules. They wanted to see if spin also affects larger particles such as ions and molecules that supply the base for biological transport.
To find the answers, they performed experiments with water particles that have different spins. The results showed that spin influences how water behaves in cells, entering at different speeds and reacting in a unique way when chiral molecules are involved.