The idea of biological systems being at the frontier of physics research dates back to the founding of the CTBP in 2002 at the University of California, San Diego. Currently, the CTBP is in the midst of its third round as a physics frontier center and is located at Rice University in Houston where it moved approximately five years ago. Its underlying conceptual underpinning remains as before; we use and develop concept and methods of physics to help make quantitative sense of phenomena in the living world and at the same time use problems from the living world to motivate new approaches to the broader topic of complex non-equilibrium matter. The CTBP has thirteen senior investigators from Rice (nine), Baylor College of Medicine (two), University of Texas Health Science (one) and the University of Houston (one). The geographical proximity of all our researchers as well as our physical space layout are major enabling factors in the collaborative research style that allows us to tackle critical issues at this frontier.
Our current research portfolio is centered around four major activities. These include:
Fundamentals of physical genetics
How forces and interactions between DNA, RNA and proteins give rise to observed structure for nuclear material and to observed dynamics for the expression of genes in different types of cells.
Interacting active elements
Biological matter is made up of active elements both at the cellular and multicellular scales. At the cellular scale, molecular motors as well as active polymerization can drive dynamical behavior in a quintessential non-equilibrium manner. And, the self-organization of this active matter is closely regulated by information flow arriving via regulatory signals from other elements.
Integrated living systems
The scale of complexity exhibited by living systems increases as we progress from the single cell to multicellular processes, whether in bacterial colony formation, developmental systems, or diseases such as cancer. Here we develop new approaches to large-scale biological systems, combining elements of active matter with ideas from cell signaling to create a new generation of “smart matter” concepts and predictive models.
As we progress with our own research agenda, we are also interested in making newly developed tools available for general use by the community. Current efforts here include the AWSEM approach for molecular level biophysics, the RACIPE method for analysis of large-scale genetic networks and the DCA approach for combining comparative genomes with structural biology data to enhance capabilities in protein-protein interactions in the context of cell signaling.
Part of our mission includes education and outreach. We have an extremely talented cadre of junior scientists at the CTBP and have created as successful strategy for teaching them how to work effectively at the physics-biology interface. At a more global scale, we have organized a number of NSF meetings on hot topics in the physics of living systems as well as several conferences; for example we are on track for hosting next year’s q-Bio meeting. Also, we are the lead institute for a novel Physics of Living Systems, student research network that attempts to create a community of graduate systems who can help each other navigate the difficulties in dealing with research in a field which is inherently multi-disciplinary and which is still relatively new in many institutions. At the outreach end, we work with the University of Houston and the Houston Community College to bring to the CTBP undergraduates from under-represented minorities to enable them to experience research at the leading edge of a vibrant scientific field and to consider attending graduate school in science.