Quantum Science Concepts In Enhancing Sensing And Imaging Technologies

Applications For Biology


Quantum concepts hold the potential to enable significant advances in the study and understanding of biological processes and systems.

The principles of quantum mechanics—the study of the smallest units of matter, such as molecules, atoms, and subatomic particles—are being applied to an increasingly broad array of scientific areas. From the remarkable speed of the molecular interactions of photosynthesis to the role of oscillating magnetic fields in flight orientation in birds, numerous biological processes are being examined for quantum effects.

Sensing and imaging technologies are crucial to biological research. These technologies could both enhance the study of quantum effects in biological systems and be enhanced by quantum concepts, allowing scientists to study the machinery of life in new ways.

What tools and technologies are needed to uncover the role of quantum mechanics in biological systems? How can quantum concepts enhance sensing and imaging technologies? What are the next steps to advance the field of quantum biology?

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In March 2021, the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine convened a workshop to examine the research and development needs to advance biological applications of quantum technology. Quantum Science Concepts for Enhancing Sensing and Imaging Technologies: Applications for Biology brought together experts working on state-of-the-art, quantum-enabled technologies and scientists who are interested in applying these technologies to biological systems. Through talks, panels, and discussions, the workshop facilitated a better understanding of the current and future applications of quantum technologies in sensing and imaging in fields such as microbiology, molecular biology, cell biology, plant science, mycology, and many others.

Get an introduction to the workshop in this short video, with opening remarks by:

  • Todd Anderson of the U.S. Department of Energy’s Biological Systems Science Division (minute 7:50 of the video).
  • Taekjip Ha of Johns Hopkins University, who served as Chair of the workshop’s organizing committee (minute 14:36 of the video).


During the workshop, there were differences in how each speaker defined the term quantum. Clarice Aiello of the University of California, Los Angeles, who served as a member of the workshop’s organizing committee, explained what she meant by quantum, noting that she delineates the definition into several levels.

  • This includes a base-level of “quantum-ness,” which reflects that all matter is made of atoms, and when these particles are isolated they behave based on quantum mechanical principles.
  • A second level is related to quantum coherence, where a single quantum object may be found in a coherent superposition state.

  • A final level, the quantum entangled level, involves multiple quantum systems entangled among themselves.

Watch Aiello discuss what is meant by quantum here (starting at minute 1:01).


Throughout the workshop, participants identified a wide range of emerging approaches and opportunities at the intersection of quantum physics and biological sensing and imaging. The workshop was organized around several main themes:

Quantum in Biology

Several quantum concepts are hypothesized to be important for life processes, and researchers are working to observe them through biological imaging and sensing.

In this keynote address, Thorsten Ritz of the University of California, Irvine reviewed the history of research and theory in quantum biology and discussed emerging work. Ritz began by noting that quantum biology is defined by two closely connected questions: Is the machinery of life quantum mechanical, and can quantum mechanics be used to study the machinery of life in new ways? The design of new quantum tools could be bio-improved, meaning that the tools can incorporate an improved understanding of the biological systems and processes that are under study. View the presentation here.

Quantum Concepts in Biological Processes

Several workshop presentations discussed research to explore quantum concepts that drive biological processes. Topics covered included intracellular and intercellular correlations in biology, bioelectromagnetic fields, and quantum photonics in biological systems.

In this workshop presentation, Marco Pettini of the Aix-Marseille Université described work to investigate long-range electrodynamic interactions among biomolecules. There are an incredibly large number of biological reactions continuously taking place in living organisms, and thousands of metabolic interactions occur within each molecule. The fundamental question that drives Pettini’s work is, how do these biochemical cognate partners meet so efficiently and successfully? The current explanation is that they meet randomly via Brownian motion, but a different possibility builds on Fröhlich’s idea that collective vibrations can be induced. View the workshop talk here (starting at minute 4:25).


More discussion of the quantum concepts hypothesized to drive biological processes can be found in the following workshop presentations:

Session 1: Probing Intracellular and Intercellular Correlations in Biology

  • Importance of Ionic Interactions—Gürol Süel, University of California, San Diego (starting at minute 28: 45)

Session 2 – Bioelectromagnetic Fields

  • How are Organisms Regulated by Electromagnetic Fields?—Margaret Ahmad, Sorbonne University (starting at minute 4:32)
  • Quantum Control of Stem Cells—Wendy Beane, Western Michigan University (starting at minute 15:36)
  • Panel Discussion (starting at minute 41:10):
    • —Margaret Ahmed, Sorbonne University
    • —Wendy Beane, Western Michigan University
    • —Douglas C. Wallace, University of Pennsylvania
    • —Thorsten Ritz, University of California Irvine

Tools to Study Quantum Effects in Biological Systems

Biological processes such as photosynthesis or magnetoreception can be viewed as very small, fast thermodynamic engines that have quantum potential. Some of the interactions that drive these processes take place at nanosecond and smaller timescales. Researchers are working to develop tools to model quantum interactions in biological systems, and to verify such interactions through experimentation.

In this workshop presentation, Martin Plenio of Ulm University discussed using color centers in diamonds as a way to examine the quantum effects of individual spin dynamics at micro- and nanoscales. The tools could theoretically be used to search for magnetoreceptors in birds, detect redox reactions, and execute protocols for high-precision spin sensing. Watch the presentation here:


More discussion of tools to study quantum effects in biological systems can be found in the following presentations:

Session 3 – Quantum Photonics in Biological Systems

  • Entangled Spectroscopy—Scott Cushing, California Institute of Technology (starting at minute 12:45)
  • Cooperative Functionality and Sensing: A Bio-Inspired Sunlight Pumped Laser—Giuseppe Luca Celardo, Benemérita Universidad Autónoma de Puebla (starting at minute 21:24)
  • Photosynthetic Light-Harvesting Complexes—Tjaart Krüger, University of Pretoria (starting at minute 31:12)

Session 5 – Broadband Spectroscopies of Collective Dynamics in Biology

  • Nanoparticles for Biosensing—Philip Hemmer, Texas A&M University (starting at minute 2:07)

Quantum for Biology

A critical challenge in biological research is to develop imaging and sensing tools that do not damage or interfere with the often fragile and fleeting systems being studied. Workshop attendees discussed quantum technologies that could enhance biological imaging and sensing, including single- and two-photon spectroscopy, single-molecule spectroscopy, quantum illumination, ghost imaging, and cryo-electron microscopy.

In this workshop talk, Majed Chergui of the École Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne discussed work to develop deep UV spectroscopic techniques that allow researchers to learn more about biosystem dynamics. The deep UV range of light occurs below 300 nanometers, and is important because DNA, RNA, and amino acids absorb light at that wavelength or below. The new tools allow researchers to use naturally occurring chromophores to learn more about intraprotein transient electric fields, intraprotein energy-electron transfer and energy transfer, and more. View the presentation here (starting at minute 2:52):


More presentations on the ways to use quantum concepts to enhance technologies for biological imaging and sensing can be found here:

Session 4: Quantum Principles for Enhanced Measurement and Imaging in Microscopy

  • Quantum Light Spectroscopy—Theodore Goodson, University of Michigan (starting at minute 6:12)
  • Quantum Principles for Enhanced Measurement and Imaging—Ted Laurence, Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory (starting at minute 15:00)

Session 6— Ultrafast Spectroscopy and Biological Reporters

  • Photothermal Material Interactions for Modulation and Imaging Using Infared Light—Michelle Sander, Boston University (starting at minute 20:09)

Biology for Quantum

Rather than developing quantum technologies as “a hammer looking for a nail,” workshop participants emphasized a focus on exploring biological problems to match emerging tools with the scientific questions. Workshop presenters discussed the frontiers of biological imaging and sensing to determine where quantum advances might be most useful.

In this presentation, Victoria Orphan of the California Institute of Technology discussed work to investigate how microorganism interactions—specifically, the direct passage of electrons between organisms known as extracellular electron transfer—affect the cycling of carbon and nutrients through the biosphere. The microorganisms that Orphan’s team studies are particularly challenging to work with because they are uncultured and live in in diverse communities located in deep-sea sediments. Technologies such as quantum dots and gas vesicles are promising, Orphan said, but there is still a need for more advanced sensing capabilities to tackle these challenges. View the presentation here (starting at minute 2:17):


More discussion of the areas of biological imaging where quantum concepts, technologies, and tools may be most useful can be found in the following presentations:

Keynote Address:

  • Exploiting Anaerobics for Biomass Breakdown and Sustainable Chemistry—Michelle O’Malley, University of California, Santa Barbara (starting at minute 9:00)

Session 7: Current Capabilities and Limitations in Plant Imaging

  • Visualizing the Cellular Decision-Making Process During Plant Epidermal Development—Keiko Torii, University of Texas at Austin (starting at 11:50)

Session 8: Measurement and Sensing Needs for Microbial Communities

  • Microbial Interactions and Quantum Imaging—Elizabeth Shank, University of Massachusetts Medical School (starting at minute 20:56)

Education, Training, and Workforce Needs

Looking toward the future development of the field, participants discussed challenges to advancing quantum biology that arise from disciplinary disconnects between physicists and biologists. Disconnects in terminology, motivations and priorities, and structural barriers to collaborative work underscore the need for concerted efforts to bridge these divides. Attendees and speakers offered suggestions for resolving these divergences, establishing a shared language, moving the field forward, and fostering meaningful feedback between disciplines.

In this presentation, Thomas A. Searles of Howard University spoke about strategies for encouraging science-loving high school students and undergraduates to choose a path in quantum science, with a focus on increasing the diversity and inclusivity of the quantum workforce. Watch the presentation here (starting at minute 17:58):


More discussion of ways to explore and create training and workforce opportunities to establish an interdisciplinary quantum biology community can be found in this panel discussion:

Session 9: Education, Training, and Workforce Needs to Move the Quantum Biology Community Forward

  • Leverhulme Quantum Biology Doctoral Training Centre—Johnjoe McFadden, University of Surrey (starting at minute 0:55)
  • Quantum Biology Interdisciplinary Trainee Exchange Program—Wendy Beane, Western Michigan University (starting at minute 14:46)
  • Creating an Interdisciplinary Quantum Biology Workforce—Thorsten Ritz, University of California, Irvine (starting at minute 26:20)



Quantum Science Concepts for Enhancing Sensing and Imaging Technologies: Applications for Biology: Proceedings of a Workshop summarizes the presentations and discussions from this March 2021 workshop, which brought together experts working on state-of-the-art, quantum-enabled technologies and scientists who are interested in applying these technologies to biological systems. Through talks, panels, and discussions, the workshop facilitated a better understanding of the current and future applications of quantum technologies in fields such as microbiology, molecular biology, cell biology, plant science, mycology, and many others.

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