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Theories conflict on how life first evolved on Earth. But consensus suggests life began around hydrothermal vents under the oceans — where a cocktail of chemicals necessary for life fused simple organic compounds into complex ones, like DNA.

This process — called abiogenesis — involves water near the vents moving out into the ocean, where it cools, allowing DNA molecules to form simple cells.

However, there is much left to learn about the causes behind DNA mutation, and how the long haul of natural evolution began. The field of quantum biology investigates whether proton tunneling — a phenomenon of quantum physics — played a role in the spontaneous mutations inside DNA, and a recent paper published in the journal Physical Chemistry Chemical Physics suggests it does.

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Human evolution could be explained by quantum physics

Proton tunneling is when a proton spontaneously disappears from one location, but then re-appears in a nearby location. The research team discovered that hydrogen atoms — which are incredibly light and act as bonds between the two strands of DNA's double-helix — can in some scenarios work like expanded waves, existing simultaneously in more than one place.