Science: The memory of molecules

Can molecules communicate with each other, exchanging information without being in physical contact? French biologist Jacques Benveniste believes so, but his scientific peers are still sceptical.
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The Independent Culture
Jacques Benveniste was once considered to be one of France's most respected biologists, until he was cast adrift from the scientific mainstream. His downfall began in 1988 when he infuriated the scientific community with experimental results which he took as evidence to suggest that water has a memory. His ideas were seized upon by homeopaths keen to find support for their theories on highly diluted medicines, but were condemned by scientific purists. Now, Benveniste believes he has evidence to suggest that it may one day be possible to transmit the curative power of life- saving drugs around the world - via the Internet.

It sounds like science fiction and Benveniste will have a hard time convincing a deeply sceptical world that he is right. Nevertheless, he began his campaign last week when he announced the latest research to come out of his Digital Biology Laboratory near Paris, to a packed audience of scientists at the Pippard Lecture Theatre at Cambridge University's Cavendish Physics Laboratory. Benveniste suggested that the specific effects of biologically active molecules such as adrenalin, nicotine and caffeine, and the immunological signatures of viruses and bacteria, can be recorded and digitised using a computer sound-card. A keystroke later, and these signals can be winging their way across the globe, courtesy of the Internet. Biological systems far away from their activating molecules can then - he suggested - be triggered simply by playing back the recordings.

Most scientists have dismissed Benveniste as being on the fringe, although there were some famous names in the audience last week, including Sir Andrew Huxley, Nobel laureate and past president of the Royal Society, and the physicist Professor Brian Josephson, also a Nobel laureate. Benveniste started by asking some apparently childish questions. If molecules could talk, what would they sound like? More specifically, can we eavesdrop on their conversations, record them, and play them back? The answer to these last three questions is, according to Benveniste, a resounding "Oui!" He further suggested that these "recordings" can make molecules respond in the same way as they do when they react. Contradicting the way biologists think biochemical reactions occur, he claims molecules do not have to be in close proximity to affect each other. "It's like listening to Pavarotti or Elton John," Benveniste explained. "We hear the sound and experience emotions, whether they're live or on CD."

For example, anger produces adrenalin. When adrenalin molecules bind to their receptor sites, they set off a string of biological events that, among other things, make blood vessels contract. Biologists say that adrenalin is acting as a molecular signalling device but, Benveniste asks, what is the real nature of the signal? And how come the adrenalin molecules specifically target their receptors and no others, at incredible speed? According to Benveniste, if the cause of such biochemical events were simply due to random collisions between adrenalin molecules and their receptors (the currently accepted theory of molecular signalling), then it should take longer than it does to get angry.

Benveniste became the bete noire of the French scientific establishment back in 1988, when a paper he had published in the science journal Nature was later rubbished by the then editor, Sir John Maddox, and a team that included a professional magician, James Randi. With an international group of scientists from Canada, France, Israel and Italy, Benveniste had claimed that vigorously shaking water solutions of an antibody could evoke a biological response, even when that antibody was diluted out of existence. Non-agitated solutions produced little or no effect. Nature said that the results of the experiment that produced the "ghostly antibodies" were, frankly, unbelievable. The journal itself came in for criticism for publishing the paper in the first place.

In his Nature paper, Benveniste reasoned that the effect of dilution and agitation pointed to transmission of biological information via some molecular organisation going on in water. This "memory of water" effect, as it was later known, proved Benveniste's academic undoing. For while the referees of his Nature paper could not fault Benveniste's experimental procedures, they could not understand his results. How, they asked, can a biological system respond to an antigen when no molecules of it can be detected in solution? It goes against the accepted "lock-and-key" principle, which states that molecules must be in contact and structurally match before information can be exchanged. Such thinking has dominated the biological sciences for more than four decades, and is itself rooted in the views of the 17th-century French philosopher Rene Descartes.

Nature's attempted debunking exercise failed to find evidence of fraud, but concluded that Benveniste's research was essentially unreproducible, a claim he has always denied. From being a respected figure in the French biological establishment, Benveniste was pilloried, losing his government funding and his laboratory. Undeterred, he and his now-depleted research team somehow continued to investigate the biological effects of agitated, highly dilute solutions. The latest results are, for biologists, even more incredible than those in the 1988 Nature paper. Physicists, however, should have less of a problem as their discipline is based on fields (eg gravitational, electromagnetic) which have well-established long-range effects. If Benveniste's claims prove to be true - which is far from certain - they could have profound consequences, not least for medical diagnostics.

Benveniste's explanation starts innocuously enough with a musical analogy. Two vibrating strings close together in frequency will produce a "beat". The length of this beat increases as the two frequencies approach each other. Eventually, when they are the same, the beat disappears. This is the way musicians tune their instruments, and Benveniste uses the analogy to explain his water-memory theory. Thus, all molecules are made from atoms which are constantly vibrating and emitting infrared radiation in a highly complex manner. These infrared vibrations have been detected for years by scientists, and are a vital part of their armoury of methods for identifying molecules.

However, precisely because of the complexity of their infrared vibrations, molecules also produce much lower "beat" frequencies. It turns out that these beats are within the human audible range (20 to 20,000 Hertz) and are specific for every different molecule. Thus, as well as radiating in the infrared region, molecules also broadcast frequencies in the same range as the human voice. This is the molecular signal that Benveniste detects and records.

If molecules can broadcast, then they should also be able to receive. The specific broadcast of one molecular species will be picked up by another, "tuned" by its molecular structure to receive it. Benveniste calls this matching of broadcast with reception "co-resonance", and says it works like a radio set. Thus, when you tune your radio to, say, Classic FM, both your set and the transmitting station are vibrating at the same frequency. Twitch the dial a little, and you're listening to Radio 1: different tuning, different sounds.

This, Benveniste claims, is how millions of biological molecules manage to communicate at the speed of light with their own corresponding molecule and no other. It also explains why minute changes in the structure of a molecule can profoundly alter its biological effect. It is not that these tiny structural changes make it a bad fit with its biological receptor (the classical lock-and-key approach). The structural modifications "detune" the molecule to its receptor. What is more, and just like radio sets and receivers, the molecules do not have to be close together for communication to take place.

So what is the function of water in all this? Benveniste explains this by pointing out that all biological reactions occur in water. The water molecules completely surround every other molecule placed among them. A single protein molecule, for example, will have a fan club of at least 10,000 admiring water molecules. And they are not just hangers-on. Benveniste believes they are the agents that in fact relay and amplify the biological signal coming from the original molecule.

It is like a CD which, by itself, cannot produce a sound but has the means to create it etched into its surface. In order for the sound to be heard, it needs to be played back through an electronic amplifier. And just as Pavarotti or Elton John is on the CD only as a "memory", so water can memorise and amplify the signals of molecules that have been dissolved and diluted out of existence. The molecules do not have to be there, only their "imprint" on the solution in which they are dissolved. Agitation makes the memory.

So what do molecules sound like? "At the moment we don't quite know," says Didier Guillonnet, Benveniste's colleague at the Digital Research Laboratory. "When we record a molecule such as caffeine, for example, we should get a spectrum, but it seems more like noise. However, when we play the caffeine recording back to a biological system sensitive to it, the system reacts. We are only recording and replaying; at the moment we cannot recognise a pattern." "But," Benveniste adds, "the biological systems do. We've sent the caffeine signal across the Atlantic by standard telecommunications and it's still produced an effect."

The effect is measured on a "biological system" such as a piece of living tissue. Benveniste claims, for instance, that the signal from molecules of heparin - a component of the blood-clotting system - slows down coagulation of blood when transmitted over the Internet from a laboratory in Europe to another in the US. If true, it will undoubtedly earn Benveniste a Nobel prize. If not, he will receive only more scorn.

Benveniste's ideas are revolutionary - many might say heretical or misguided - and he is unlikely to persuade his most ardent critics. Although his ideas may seem plausible enough, he will win over his enemies only if his results can be replicated by other laboratories. So far this has not been done to the satisfaction of his many detractors.

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