At the Intersection of Physics and Biology

By Jason Socrates Bardi

Every 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 biology—solving 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 father–son 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 prize—in physics—for 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 indispensable?

Rest assured, there are some. One is the area of emergent phenomena—out 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 Wellcome Fund.

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 of biology."

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 age—particularly 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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Molecular Biology Professor Charles L. Brooks, III. Photo by Jason S. Bardi.

Molecular Biology Professor David A. Case. Photo by Jason S. Bardi.