Monday, 25 April 2011

Can bacteria transmit radio waves?


This week arXiv published a controversial abstract positing possible evidence for electromagnetic emissions from bacterial organisms.

Whilst seemingly outlandish, this isn't a new area research. Bacterial radio waves were theorised in 2009 by French virologist Luc Montagnier, who won the Nobel Prize for medicine in 2008 for the discovery of HIV.

Montagnier's highly controversial theory suggests that solutions containing the DNA of pathogenic bacteria and viruses, including HIV, could emit low frequency radio waves that induced surrounding water molecules to become arranged into nanostructures. These water molecules, he posited, could also emit radio waves. His research is summarised in this presentation paper.

But as Physics arXiv Blog at Technology Review points out, there are few more divisive figures than Montagnier, and his claims are flatly rejected by most mainstream biologists. PZ Myers memorably condemned the research as, "an awful paper that I would have shredded in a sea of red ink if it had come to me".

So what's new about the current arXiv report, and who would stick their neck out and be associated with furthering a theory that was met with such universal bile? Allan Windom is a theorist at Northeastern University in Boston who specialises in quantum field theory at the interface between high energy theory and condensed matter theory. Along with J. Swain, Y. Srivastava, and S. Sivasubramanian, he believes he may have solved one of the most controversial problems with Montagnier's theory, ie, there is no known mechanism by which bacteria can generate radio waves.

arXiv summarise their abstract (linked to below), as follows:

"Many types of bacterial DNA take the form of circular loops. So they've modelled the behaviour of free electrons moving around such a small loop, pointing out that, as quantum objects, the electrons can take certain energy levels. [They] calculate that the transition frequencies between these energy levels correspond to radio signals broadcast at 0.5, 1 and 1.5 kilohertz. And they point out that exactly this kind of signal has been measured in E Coli bacteria. [...] It is well known that bacterial and other types of cells use electromagnetic waves at higher frequencies to communicate as well as to send and store energy. If cells can also generate radio waves, there's no reason to think they wouldn't exploit this avenue too."

This is undoubtedly going to create a stir in the biological physics community, so stay tuned for more.


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