2012 Aspen Winter Conference Growth and Form: Pattern Formation in Biology

INTELLECTUAL MERIT: The quantitative understanding of the origin of the complex variety of patterns found in nature has challenged scientist for centuries. Such patterns range from the morphology of embryonic and adult organisms to vein structures in plants, to the organization of birds in large flocks that exhibit coordinated behavior. Thanks to advances in imaging techniques on various scale and computer modeling, we are now making progress in connecting the cellular or single individual scale to the organism or large group scale. The goal of the conference is to bring together physicists, chemists, mathematicians, engineers, and biologists who are using physical principles, statistical mechanics, and modeling to approach problems such as developmental biology, biomineralization, and flocking.

BROADER IMPACTS: The organizers of this Aspen Winter Conference have made a special effort to increase the diversity of the group of invited speakers. Currently nine of the twenty invited speakers are women and six are junior scientists. The organizers will also work to attract a large number of junior participants. Several will be selected to give contributed talks. The conference will host an Aspen Winter Public Lecture on some aspect of pattern formation in biology. The lecture will be held on Wednesday evening at the Wheeler Opera House, in downtown Aspen and preceded by a ?Meet the Physicist? session where members of the Aspen community will meet informally with two of the conference participants for a question and answer session. The Winter Public Lecture will also be broadcast on local television GrassRoots TV 12 and streamed over the internet. Finally, to ensure broad dissemination of conference material slides and other content of the conference will be posted on the conference website.

Project Report

How do biological systems regulate growth and produce the patterns seen in nature? This conference explored this broad question that spans such diverse topics as developmental biology, cancer, biomineralization, and flocking. Specific examples include embryonic development, the formation and structure of organs and tissues, wound healing, branching structure of neurons and blood vessels, leaf arrangement and flower patterns, microstructure of bones and seashells, swarming of bacteria and biofilm formation, and flocking of birds and fish. An increasing number of physicists, mathematicians, engineers, and biologists are using physical principles, statistical mechanics, and modeling to approach this wide spectrum of problems. Indeed, 2010 was the 150th anniversary of the birth of D'Arcy Wentworth Thompson, the author of the classic work On Growth and Form. Unlike the biologists of his day who emphasized the role of evolution in determining the form and structure of living organisms, Thompson pointed out the importance of physical laws and mechanics. This is true now more than ever. This conference brought together 68 leading workers and young scientists in a variety of fields working on questions related to pattern formation in biological systems. Leading experts on biological pattern formation from a variety of disciplines ranging from mathematics to medicine learned about exciting new developments in this fast-moving field. On Wednesday night Prof. Robert Austin of Princeton University presented an excellent public lecture at the Wheeler Opera House in downtown Aspen on "Darwin, Evolution and Cancer". The theater was packed and the lecture was followed by a long and lively discussion, with many questions form the public. Many attendees said it was one of the best conferences they have attended. NSF funds were largely used to support the participation of junior scientists (students, postdocs, and junior assistant professors) who would have not otherwise have been able to attend. Participating in the conference allowed this group (that constitutes about a third of the total participants) to either get started in the new - to them - research field of morphogenesis, or to establish contacts and collaborations with more established researchers in this area.

National Science Foundation (NSF)
Division of Materials Research (DMR)
Standard Grant (Standard)
Application #
Program Officer
David A. Brant
Project Start
Project End
Budget Start
Budget End
Support Year
Fiscal Year
Total Cost
Indirect Cost
Aspen Center for Physics
United States
Zip Code