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Tuesday, January 03, 2023

Re a Further Look at BioPhysics

How does life and physics fit together?    Just received in an Alumni mailing discussing,


Physicists are studying how living matter works, and find that it breaks the standard rules and produces fascinating new phenomena.

Monday, December 5, 2022, By Susan Ahlborn. Illustrations by Marina Muun,   UPenn Omnia 

The James Webb telescope is showing us our universe in vibrant new detail. Some physicists, though, are looking in another direction: at us and other living matter here on Earth, from the cilia in lungs to the vasculature in leaves to the neurons in brains. What they’re finding is equally marvelous, and it’s challenging some of the current understanding of physics. 

Ultimately, they’re working to discover the rules that govern how matter lives and evolves, and their research may lead to better medicine, robotics based on biology, and an expanded understanding of the physical and biological world. 

How can an intelligent system arise from the collective dynamics of its basic components?

“We’re using physics principles to understand life and living matter,” says Eleni Katifori, Associate Professor of Physics and Astronomy, who studies vasculature in plants and animals. “But we are also using living matter as an inspiration to discover new physics, for asking the right questions or new questions.”

“Biology has already invented a lot of things. Living matter, from bacteria to leaves to humans, works in ways that physicists don’t understand, much less can duplicate,” adds Arnold Mathijssen, Assistant Professor of Physics and Astronomy. His goal is to unravel the physics of pathogens, design biomedical materials, and understand the collective functionality of living systems out of equilibrium. “It’s fundamental research. For example, how can an intelligent system arise from the collective dynamics of its basic components? It’s also directly relevant to our society, as in, what is the probability of SARS-CoV-2 transmission within a food supply chain?”

Leading the Way

The study of biophysics is not new; Luigi and Lucia Galvani were already investigating animal electricity in the late 1700s. In the last 20 years, though, technological advances have allowed researchers to see microscopic phenomena in living tissue with unprecedented detail, record simultaneously from thousands of neurons, and even track the large-scale behavior of ecosystems. All of these new methods produce vast amounts of quantitative data from which we can infer the laws of living matter. But it wasn’t until 2022 that the National Academies of Science, Engineering, and Medicine recognized biological physics as a separate field. 

Penn Arts & Sciences physicists have been studying living matter for decades, bringing Penn to the front of this area. Philip Nelson, Professor of Physics and Astronomy, wrote key books in the field, starting with Biological Physics: Energy, Information, Life in 2014. He’s been honored with the Emily Gray Award of the Biophysical Society for his “far-reaching and significant contributions.” Arjun Yodh, James M. Skinner Professor of Science, has received the Michael S. Feld Biophotonics Award of the Optical Society of America for his pioneering work in demonstrating and clinically translating biomedical optics. A.T. Charlie Johnson, Rebecca W. Bushnell Professor of Physics and Astronomy, is using biological molecules as chemical recognition elements in disease diagnosis, security, and environmental monitoring. Marija Drndic, Fay R. and Eugene L. Langberg Professor of Physics, explores mesoscopic and nanoscale structures, including the detection and analysis of DNA and microRNA.

In 2021, Penn Arts & Sciences and Penn Engineering made a unique investment in this interdisciplinary study with the new Center for Soft and Living Matter. Led by Director Andrea J. Liu, Hepburn Professor of Physics, and Associate Director Douglas J. Durian, Mary Amanda Wood Professor of Physics and Astronomy, the center brings together more than 60 faculty from the two schools. And Penn’s Computational Neuroscience Initiative, cofounded by Vijay Balasubramanian, Cathy and Marc Lasry Professor of Physics and Astronomy, involves researchers from Arts & Sciences, the Perelman School of Medicine, and Engineering. 

“If you look at a different scale or regime, new phenomena always pop up,” says Balasubramanian, a theoretical physicist who also holds a secondary appointment in neuroscience in the Perelman School of Medicine. “It’s the interactions between the components of living systems that make them so interesting, unlike, for example simple gases in a room. The brain contains a hundred billion interacting neurons. Molecules can talk to the whole organism, pheromones can change the behavior of entire colonies of organisms, stress can change gene expression. So, living systems interact across scales of organization unlike most physical systems that we are used to.”  .... ' 

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