It takes a lot of tricks to make the body tick — from a symphony of microorganisms in the gut to proteins that function like Swiss Army knives. A new study suggests a similarly ingenious mechanism could be behind one of the most important aspects of cellular function.

The study is about the behavior of protons, the subatomic particles that form the nucleus of a hydrogen atom. Like all subatomic particles, protons have a dual (or quantum) nature — sometimes they behave as particles and other times as waves. As particles, they move through the world kind of like you and I do: When they come to a hill or a barrier, they have to go over it, which takes some time. But as waves, they can “tunnel” through the barrier, which can sometimes be a lot faster.

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