Dr Daniel Kattnig


Dr Daniel Kattnig

Senior Lecturer (CEMPS), Living Systems Institute

‘I am excited to be part of this “no-frontiers approach” [within the LSI] and hope that our collaborative efforts will lead to new ideas and insights beyond the orthodoxies of the individual fields.

Biography:

I completed my PhD in physical chemistry at the University of Technology, Graz, Austria, on the studies of (photo-induced) electron transfer phenomena. It is during this period that I first delved into the study of magnetic field effects on charge recombination reactions, a phenomenon that has inspired my scientific career and ambitions. I joined the Max Planck Institute for Polymer Research, Germany in 2010, where I focused on the investigation of soft matter and proteins (e.g. MBP) by means of pulsed electron paramagnetic resonance. Returning to Graz, I took on a research position dedicated to magnetic field effects on exciplex-forming donor acceptor systems, which I held until 2013 when I eventually joined the group of Prof. Hore at the University of Oxford. My current research activity is in the field of quantum biology or, more precisely, theoretical and experimental spin chemistry, an interdisciplinary field dedicated to the effects of weak magnetic fields on chemical reactions and biological processes.

Highlights of my career to date: 

Weak magnetic fields can impact chemical reactions involving transient radical pairs even though the relevant interaction energy is six orders of magnitude smaller than the average thermal energy per degree of freedom. This astonishing phenomenon, of which I became fully aware at a comparably late stage of my PhD studies, has fascinated me ever since. I have studied different aspects of this phenomenon. This path turned out to be rewarding, personally and with respect to the scientific insights gained, leading me to many acmes. The unravelling of exceptional reaction pathways in exciplex forming systems via magnetic field effects and the real-time observation of these processes constituted important stepping stones. Later, with the focus shifting to animal magnetoreception, my research became more inter-disciplinary but also more rewarding in terms of addressing a broader audience. Recent highlights include the discovery of a chemical amplification process that boosts magnetic field effects of continuously photo-excited cyclic systems. The most relevant theoretical insights are related to the realization that the avian magnetic compass is indeed a truly quantum phenomenon and that it could realistically be enhanced by the noisy, warm and wet biological surroundings, which conventionally is thought to undermine rather than facilitate quantum processes due to decoherence. 

What excites me most about joining the LSI? 

With the focus on magnetic field effects on biological processes and the avian quantum magnetic compass, my research is of an inter-disciplinary nature covering diverse aspects ranging from applied mathematics and theoretical physics, over biochemistry to animal physiognomy and behavioural biology. Evidently, a single scientist can only cover part of this diverse spectrum and has to rely on collaborations, at least if inspired with the desire, like me, to comprehensively solve these long-standing puzzles. In my opinion, this is a characteristic feature not only of my research endeavours but reflects the nature of the most pressing contemporary scientific problems of humankind. The idea of the LSI is overcome the discipline barriers by bringing together a truly diverse group of scientists to more effectively address the challenges of today.

The research work I will be undertaking in the LSI:

My group will focus on the theoretical description and experimental assessment of the effects of weak magnetic fields on chemical reaction yields relevant to animal magnetoreception or biological processes associated with oxidative stress and lipid peroxidation. These processes have in common that they involve transient radical pairs, ubiquitous short-lived reaction intermediates whose chemistry is controlled their spin dynamics and whose fate can often be impacted by magnetic interactions orders of magnitude weaker than the thermal energy per degree of freedom, kBT. We are particularly interested in modelling the quantum effects that underlie these processes and in understanding how these effects can be harnessed in biological systems despite their warm, wet and noisy characteristics, which in principle are expected to lead to fast decoherence. To this end, we seek mechanisms that are able to amplify magnetic field effects, tailor their characteristics to particular applications, or evade spin relaxation. We aim for a fundamental understanding of the governing principles, which will allow us to exploit these extraordinary quantum effects in new technological and medical applications, invite a reassessment of related health implications and provide insights in the emerging field of quantum biology. 

Something about me that you can’t google! 

My motivation is to shape the world of tomorrow – to uncover today’s natural secrets in the hope that they will benefit us and our children in the future. Fundamental research should always be inspired by altruism. We think, we see, we imagine, we dream, we struggle on, today, to know, to understand, to build, so future generations will eventually lead a better life.