The Center for Theoretical Biological Physics uses methods from physics, mathematics and chemistry to understand biological problems. We collaborate with researchers all over the world in an effort to expand understanding.
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 fourth round as a physics frontier center and is centered at Rice University in Houston where it moved in 2012. Its underlying conceptual underpinning remains as before; we use and develop concepts 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 currently has sixteen senior investigators from Rice, Baylor College of Medicine, University of Texas Health Science, the University of Houston, Northeastern University and Harvard Medical School. The geographical proximity of most of our researchers, the long-term cooperative atmosphere fostered by the Center as well as our physical space layouts, are major enabling factors that allow us to tackle critical issues at this frontier.
Our current research portfolio is centered around four major activities. These include:
Physics of the Genome
How forces and interactions between DNA, RNA and proteins give rise to observed structure and dynamics for nuclear material and to observed nonlinear behavior for the expression of genes in different types of cells.
Biomolecular Physics And Cellular Processes
Cells are large and complex in molecular terms but small in terms of the ordinary mechanical objects we encounter. Also, many of these molecular processes operate out of equilibrium. Thus, the usual paradigm of condensed matter physics – put many microscopic objects together; derive a free energy and, using various analytical approximations and simulations, calculate a few bulk properties – needs to be fundamentally re-worked for biological matter.
Regulatory Control Of Biological Active Processes
Much of CTBP research has focused on coupling molecular-based control systems (for example in the form of genetic circuits) with biophysical processes such as metabolism, genome folding and cell motion. These processes implement the actual functionality of living systems, and their regulation enables those systems to take appropriate actions in response to information about the current environment.
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 SMOG method for structure-based analysis of biomolecules 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. Our newest efforts in this direction include the NDB website for our research into genomic structure and the RACIPE methodology for analyzing the robust features of biological networks.
Part of our mission includes education and outreach. We have an extremely talented cadre of junior scientists at the CTBP and have created a 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 have hosted q-Bio meetings, Dynamics Days meetings and specialized focused meeting on subjects such as the Artificial Cell. We are the lead institute for a novel Physics of Living Systems, student research network that attempts to create a community of graduate students 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.