Theoretical physics has become increasingly important in understanding complex living systems and plays a key role in addressing phenomena and behavior on the cellular and multicellular level. This Physics Frontiers Centers award to the Center for Theoretical Biological Physics (CTBP) builds on the extensive research, education, and outreach successes achieved during previous awards to both expand the reach and accelerate the rate of scientific progress on critical issues in biological physics, and extend the scope of training and outreach activities. The goal of the work is to further our understanding of : (1) living systems by combining soft matter approaches with molecular biophysics, (2) information rich network-based computations with stochastic nonlinear dynamics, and (3) self-organization with design through Darwinian evolution. Topics to be studied include: the structure and function of the genome; phenotypic decision-making via nonlinear information processing in biological networks; and the physical architecture of the cell and its control by incoming signals. Collaborations with many contacts at the Texas Medical Center and a new association with faculty at the Harvard Medical School will continue CTBP's training of students and postdoctoral fellows in the information rich areas of theoretical biological physics. The CTBP outreach includes a pioneering program that brings undergraduates from underrepresented groups to the Center for intensive summer experiences and provides them with mentoring research and career guidance, following up through the academic year. This effort will be expanded and also extended to a new remote CTBP site at Northeastern University.
The research program includes four main research areas: 1) Developing a theory-based strategy to create quantitatively predictive models of genome structural ensembles applicable to a broad range of cell types and states of the cell cycle; 2) Creating a new set of experimental and analytic tools for obtaining and interpreting data regarding genome structure and dynamics; 3) Utilizing tools from statistical physics, soft condensed matter physics, polymeric materials, and non-linear dynamical systems to further understanding of regulatory networks involving genomic transcriptional regulation; and 4) Studying the structure of the living cell, the active cytoskeleton, which determines basic cellular architecture and also serves as a conduit of signals running between different subcellular regions. The planned research utilizes the unique scientific capability provided by the Physics Frontier Center. Crucially, it continues the strategy of both developing and using concepts and techniques from physics and applied mathematics to tackle otherwise intractable problems in the science of living matter and conversely to use biological problems to motivate new concepts of broad applicability throughout physics.
This Physics Frontiers Centers award is co-funded by the Division of Physics and the Division of Materials Research within the Directorate of Mathematical and Physical Sciences, and the Division of Molecular and Cellular Biosciences and the Division of Integrative Organismal Systems within the Directorate for Biological Sciences.
This award reflects NSF's statutory mission and has been deemed worthy of support through evaluation using the Foundation's intellectual merit and broader impacts review criteria.