I was reading this article (full PDF here) about the myoglobin's unusual preference for O2 than CO, in which it was written:

It turns out that some electrons in the myoglobin involved in binding CO and O2 exhibit a strong ‘entanglement’ effect, which means that their motion cannot be described independently. The all-important strength of this effect is primarily controlled by a property of quantum mechanics (Hund’s exchange) that has been traditionally neglected in such simulations; the team now believe that classical electric repulsion effects are far less important in determining which of CO and O2 is more energetically favourable for binding.

But I cannot understand how entanglement explains this phenomenon. Has it been concluded from this (quantum mechanical) perspective? If yes, can anyone explain how?


2 Answers 2


So, there are two effects at play here which they account for. One they denote by a $\textbf{U}$ and the other by a $\textbf{J}$. $\textbf{U}$ represents many-body coulomb repulsions between the electrons. That is, they are accounting not just for two electrons repelling each other, but up to three or more. $\textbf{J}$ represents valence fluctuations in spin. Specifically, iron in hemes are in a high-spin triplet state. What they are saying then is that it is necessary to include spin fluctuations which result in changes in the magnetic moment of the system in order to properly capture the binding of ligands. If you look at figure 4 of this paper, you'll find that they have included a comparison of spin-fluctuations in $\ce{MbO2}$ and $\ce{MbCO}$ which are used as model systems and known to be analogous in ligand binding to hemes. Basically what this means is that the increased spin-fluctuations cause $\ce{O2}$ to bind more strongly, but this has basically no effect on $\ce{CO}$. They describe these effects in the following quote:

In this case, the effect of J on the binding energy of O2 may be regarded as a balance between two competing effects. The charge analysis (Fig. 3) reveals that metal-to-ligand charge transfer is higher for J =0 eV, which is expected to enhance ligand–protein interactions for small values of J. However, NBO analysis reveals a larger ligand-to-metal back charge transfer for J = 0.7 eV, which is consistent with the increased occupancy of the Fe $\ce{d3z^2−r^2}$ orbital (Table 1), and is expected to cause variational energetic lowering at higher values of J due to electronic delocalization.

I won't pretend to fully understand their argument (frankly it seems to me like they are waving their hands at a solution and are basically saying this is some complicated effect having to do with spntaneously changing magnetic moments).

So, in that paper they only ascribe the effect to strong electron correlation, many-body coulomb effects, and spin-fluctuations.

So, they definitely use the word entanglement but don't define exactly what they mean or even use it as an explanatory device. I found in another one of their papers though, Weber, C., O’Regan, D. D., Hine, N. D., Littlewood, P. B., Kotliar, G., & Payne, M. C. (2013). Importance of many-body effects in the kernel of hemoglobin for ligand binding. Physical review letters, 110(10), 106402., where they do actually define what they mean by entanglement and it depends on these parameters $\textbf{U}$ and $\textbf{J}$. You can find their discussion of this on page 11 in an appendix.

Their use of the word entanglement is derived from the Von Neumann Entropy which can be used as a measure of the amount of entanglement in a given system. This is because if two particles are entangled in some way, their entropy will be lower than if the two particles were not entangled. Note that this use of the word of entanglement is related to the usual descriptions of entanglement, but it is more of a measure of the average of spontaneous entanglement and disentanglement. That is, particles can become entangled due to some way in which they interact, but almost immediately interact with something else that breaks their entanglement so that it's very rare to find systems where this has any meaningful effect. This spontaneous entanglement in these heme systems is a result of the many-body effects which I've been describing. This manifests itself in the entropy they calculate. This highlights the importance of using dynamical mean-field theory (which they use) as follows:

With this definition of the entropy, suitable for DFT calculations, we found that L = 0.757 in FeP-p and L = 0.765 in Fep-d. The entropy at the DFT level is hence much smaller than the DFT+DMFT entropy, which is in the range Λ = 2.5 − 4.2. This is explained by the absence of the many-body excitations induced by the correlations (U and J) which contribute significantly to the entropy.

There's no doubt they aren't being very forthcoming in their terminology or definitions, but they are also doing some very complicated and interesting stuff.

  • $\begingroup$ Interesting answer, +1! "Basically what this means is that the increased spin-fluctuations cause O2 to bind more strongly, but this has basically no effect on CO." and "This spontaneous entanglement in these heme systems is a result of the many-body effects which I've been describing." Can you add some more details on these points? :) $\endgroup$ Mar 6, 2017 at 12:06
  • $\begingroup$ The first quote box is about all I can offer in regards to the preference for $O_2$. They are saying that when spin-fluctuations are allowed to occur, the charge-transfer from ligand to metal is increased and this increase compensates for the metal-to-ligand charge transfer which is lost due to spin-fluctuations. If you wish, you can regard spin-fluctuations as a mechanism by which the electrons can be occupied, and simply because this can happen, it does to some extent, which weakens the metal-to-ligand charge transfer, but oxygen then donates more charge so it all works out. $\endgroup$
    – jheindel
    Mar 9, 2017 at 8:40
  • $\begingroup$ Note, however, that they are choosing the value of $\textbf{J}$ such that it matches experiment. One can always choose a set of parameters that match experiment, but that doesn't make it right. Nonetheless, it seems they have good physical reason for doing this. As far as the entanglement goes, I don't what to add besides that particles are always being entangled, but this entanglement is disrupted by random collisions and other things. This can be thought of as the environment "making an observation" on the entangled pair of particles. $\endgroup$
    – jheindel
    Mar 9, 2017 at 8:43
  • $\begingroup$ Nice points! Just one more thing, please add them into your answer ;) $\endgroup$ Mar 9, 2017 at 12:45

More of a comment, but it is too long for the comment format.

I scanned the article. I'm not qualified to evaluate their QM model. I do wonder about their use of the word "entanglement" however. From wikipedia:

Quantum entanglement is a physical phenomenon that occurs when pairs or groups of particles are generated or interact in ways such that the quantum state of each particle cannot be described independently of the others, even when the particles are separated by a large distance.

The phrase "separated by a large distance" in Wikipedia's definition is an important qualifier to me. To me it means I'm measuring a atom/molecule on this side of the lab and comparing it to a atom/molecule on that side of the lab. But for some reason due to how I am making the measurements the two atoms/molecules have correlated quantum states.

If you do a "full" MO analysis on the molecule then you have to consider how all the parts interact. Chemists typically just do a MO on the specific chemical bonds between two parts of the interacting molecules because the approach is simpler. That doesn't seem to work for myoglobin's unusual preference for O2 over CO.

Look at the blue box at the end of the paper. Instead of "quantum entanglement" I think "quantum interactions" would be more appropriate wording.

  • $\begingroup$ Well, I think entanglement would fit there. Its just that many people (except Wikipedia) don't define quantum entanglement properly. And since (I suppose) the electrons are farther than in an atom, so only entanglement and tunneling (maybe 1-2 more things) would be applicable in the case. $\endgroup$ Sep 14, 2016 at 10:30
  • $\begingroup$ The point here is not separated by large distance but even when separated by large distance, in a way meaning that distance does not play much role here. $\endgroup$ Mar 1, 2017 at 13:53
  • $\begingroup$ Is not 'entanglement' a bit of a buzz word at present? If the coupling between electrons is stronger than the combined disruptive (de-phasing) effects of electric & magnetic fields of all nearby atoms then it would seem that their behaviour should be correlated. How 'correlation' and 'entanglement' differ is not clear, nor is it clear (in the paper to me at least) how Hund's coupling differs from the more familiar antiferromagnetic or exchange coupling, but I'm not an expert in this. $\endgroup$
    – porphyrin
    Mar 3, 2017 at 14:58
  • $\begingroup$ @porphyrin and how would coupling between electrons be stronger than overall disruptive effects? If not entanglement, then some other effect must be responsible for this, and thats what I want to know. $\endgroup$ Mar 5, 2017 at 15:01
  • 1
    $\begingroup$ As I understand it the reason that its hard to detect entanglement (other than in photons) is that because of disruptive 'noise' from surrounding atoms that any coherence lasts only for a few hundred femtoseconds at most, e.g as in the initial entangled state ( exciton) in energy transfer in antenna of photosynthetic organisms. In general the size of the electron's interaction depends on its causes, so could cover a wide range of energies. I don't know enough about the details to comment in more specific terms. $\endgroup$
    – porphyrin
    Mar 6, 2017 at 9:47

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