PME-led research into protein-based qubits earns $2.75M Moore Foundation Grant

The qubit is the basic unit of information in quantum engineering, a field poised to revolutionize everything from healthcare to cryptography.

Bolstered by a new $2.75 million grant from the Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation, a team led by Pritzker School of Molecular Engineering Asst. Prof. Peter Maurer will soon study qubits made from protein.

“This is a completely new class of qubits that will allow us a radically new approach to engineer quantum systems,” Maurer said.

Quantum sensing

Maurer said it might seem counterintuitive to build volatile qubits of high-tech information out of a biological material like protein. Biological systems are wet, messy and complicated, a far cry from the laboratory environments that create the qubits revolutionizing computing, cryptography and sensors.

But there could be nothing better than a biological material for quantum sensing within biological materials, getting molecular-level data that could track individual cancer cells, identify genetic conditions and revolutionize how we diagnose disease.

One potential benefit of protein-based qubits is the ability to use genetic information to target the exact cells, structures within those cells or even molecules of the human body.

“If you have a genetically encodable probe, you can deterministically, through transfection, encode your qubits sensor to specific locations in a biological system,” Maurer said. “Once we have that, we have basically a molecular size genetically encodable qubit that can be used to target specific sites in cells and perform their local quantum measurement.”

Making quantum information out of biological materials is, by nature, an interdisciplinary task, bringing together quantum engineers from PME and bioengineers from PME and Harvard and molecular biologists from Cornell and the University of Washington.

Directed evolution

Traditionally when engineer qubits, researcher try to understand the origin of noise and then design an approach that results in a device that is less impacted by this noise. However, this approach is extremely cumbersome and relies on a deep understanding of the system which might not be available in a complex environment as that of a living system.

Maurer’s team deviates from this traditional approach by constructing qubits out of proteins, which are genetically encoded in bacteria. Since the genome of a bacteria can by mutate between generations, the encoded proteins will also change accordingly. In a process known as ‘directed evolution’ the Maurer lab will then use these mutations of the genome to engineer protein-based qubits with improved quantum properties. While directed evolution has been successfully applied in molecular biology, it has not been used to quantum technology.

“As physicists, when we develop qubits, we use a top-down approach. We try to understand the entire system and identify what quantities messed up the qubit properties. Then we try to engineer our system competitively,” Maurer said. “With directed evolution, we use a very different approach. We can basically say we have a qubit that is not perfect, but we now use evolution to improve the properties of this.”

The key is the protein.

The Moore Foundation grant will provide $2,749,999 of funding over five years, allowing the team to scale up their research to both build the genetically encodable qubits that are then optimized through directed evolution.

The foundation was created in 2000 by Intel co-founder Gordon Moore and his wife Betty Irene Moore with the goal of funding research and projects that will create positive outcomes for future generations. Both Gordon and Betty Irene Moore died in 2023.

This research is funded by the Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation, Grant GBMF12763.