At the Intersection of Physics and Biology
By Jason Socrates
biologist is, at heart, a chemist.
And every chemist is, at heart, a physicist.
And every physicist is, at heart, a mathematician.
And every mathematician is, at heart a philosopher.
And every philosopher is, at heart, a biologist."
The path that connects physics to biology has long been something
of a one-way street.
Down it generations of scientists trained in classical and
modern physics have passed on their way to successful careers
at the forefront of biologysolving some of the most
difficult problems in the field and inventing new techniques,
most notably molecular biology, and new technologies.
In fact, some of the most powerful techniques in structural
biology were discovered by physicists. The physicist Wilhelm
Conrad Röntgen discovered X rays in 1895. X ray diffraction
in crystals was discovered by a physicist (Max von Laue) and
applied to determine the structure of atoms in those crystals
by a fatherson team of physicists, William Henry and
William Lawrence Bragg. Nuclear magnetic resonance (NMR) was
also independently discovered by two physicists, Edward Mills
Purcell at Harvard and Felix Bloch at Stanford, just after
World War II. And electron microscopy was invented by physicist
Ernst Ruska in the 1930s.
The scientific world recognized those individuals and their
achievements, and each in turn won a Nobel prizein physicsfor
their accomplishments. The impact of these technologies on
biology is immeasurable.
So where, one might wonder, is the rainbow trail from biology
to physics? What famous biologists became productive physicists?
What contributions have biologists made that physicists find
Rest assured, there are some. One is the area of emergent
phenomenaout of a seemingly random pattern of fluctuations
or motions comes behavior that is highly cooperative and ordered.
"The very early seed of those ideas existed in physics,
but the conceptualization and development of the principles
[of emergent phenomena] really matured through applications
and studies in biological systems," says Charles L. Brooks
III, professor of molecular biology at The Scripps Research
Institute (TSRI). "Now those ideas are making their way back
to cluster physics and other areas."
And, Brooks adds, researchers in La Jolla are poised to
bring more ideas from biology to physics. A consortium of
local research institutions has just been awarded $10.5 million
over the next five years from the National Science Foundation
to establish the world's leading center in the emerging field
of theoretical biological physics.
Biological physics is an umbrella term that includes, in
the traditional sense, areas such as spectroscopy and structural
biology, which use the discoveries and the laws of physics
to study problems in biology. But more importantly, biological
physics also forges ahead with research that uses biology
to advance ideas in physics.
"We think that new principles of physics will emerge from
studying biology," says Brooks. "It's a new venture."
A Center at the Interface
Headed by investigators at the University of California,
San Diego (UCSD), the new Center for Theoretical Biological
Physics, or CTBP, will combine the intellectual resources
of TSRI, the University of California, San Diego's Division
of Physical Sciences, the San Diego Supercomputer Center at
UCSD, and The Salk Institute for Biological Studies.
This venture is built upon the previously established and
highly successful La Jolla Interfaces in Science program,
an interdisciplinary training program founded by the same
investigators four years ago that has to date supported the
studies of more than 40 graduate students and post-graduate
fellows. The program is generously supported by the Burroughs
The CTBP will bring together theoreticians and experimentalists
from around the world to advance research and educate scientists
using an interdisciplinary approach to be carried out jointly
by physicists, chemists, mathematicians, and biologists.
The center represents the first time that the Physics Division
of the National Science Foundation is providing, through its
Physics Frontier Center program, substantial support for biological
physics. Additional funds will come from the science foundation's
Information Technology Resource program, designed to support
"visionary work" that could lead to major advances in information
technology and its applications.
"It is very satisfying that our long-running efforts in
establishing a paradigm for research and training at the interdisciplinary
interface of physics and biology are being recognized and
supported by the NSF," notes Brooks. "[The NSF's] forward-looking
initiative to establish the CTBP should provide a model for
other funding agencies as we seek a more quantitative understanding
No Other Place like It
Other researchers involved in the center include José
N. Onuchic, a professor of physics at UCSD; Kim Baldridge,
a UCSD chemistry and biochemistry professor working at the
San Diego Supercomputer Center; UCSD physics professors Henry
Abarbanel, Terrance Hwa, and David Kleinfeld; UCSD physicist
Wouter-Jan Rappel; UCSD chemistry and biochemistry professors
J. Andrew McCammon and Peter Wolynes; UCSD mathematics professor
Michael Holst; David Case, a professor in the Department of
Molecular Biology at TSRI; Terrence Sejnowski, a neurobiologist
at Salk and adjunct professor of physics and biology at UCSD;
and Charles Stevens, a neurobiologist at Salk.
Even though the center is in the very early stages, there
is a lot of enthusiasm among the researchers about the collaborative
spirit in which the work will proceed.
Onuchic says the computational resources of the San Diego
Supercomputer Center combined with the intellectual resources
of UCSD, TSRI, and Salk make this a unique center, one that
will allow biological physics to advance and gain influence
within the traditional disciplines of biology and physics.
"No other place in the world has as many top people working
in this field," he says.
"I am really enthusiastic about the increased interactions
in the La Jolla area," says Case, a professor in TSRI's Department
of Molecular Biology. "This will be broader and go beyond
[anything we have done in the past]."
Over the past several years, adds Brooks, the interface
between physics and biology has come of ageparticularly
in La Jolla, where many people who do the sorts of studies
that the center will foster have been moving.
"It was time for a center for biological physics," adds
Brooks. "And this is probably the best place in the world
to have it."
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