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. By Lionel Milgrom
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
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
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
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
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.

published in The Independent, March 19th., 1999.

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