How physics and biology work together to understand cell organization

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Cells get organized

How researchers probe the physics of motion, communication and organization in cell networks, and how understanding these systems could help us tackle serious issues in medicine and biology

self-organized bacterial community

A colony of bacteria organize with each other under certain conditions to maximize nutrient intake. [Credit: Eshel Ben-Jacob]

From Physics World:

Consider this scenario: in your haste to grab the latest issue of Physics World, you scrape your hand on your postbox. It’s nothing severe, just a little scratch, but if your immune system is functioning as it should, your body will perform an amazing feat of microscopic organization. Your body assesses the level of damage and threat from infection, sending security cells to the site to hoover up intrusive bacteria and seal the wound. Within a few days you’d hardly know the scrape was ever there: your skin and blood vessels repair themselves.

Except of course there’s no mind behind this repair. Your brain isn’t required to heal a wound: there’s no local oversight from any intelligent agent, and the cells involved don’t think. Instead, cells interact with their neighbours, and a larger pattern emerges from those small-scale interactions. That’s the key to “self-organization”, whether it occurs in the human immune system, swarms of locusts, water molecules in a snowflake or electrons in a magnetic material.

For that reason, researchers studying biological self-organization draw heavily on physics. Some directly investigate the physical interactions between cells and their environments; others use theoretical models drawn or adapted from physics to understand emergent behaviours in biological systems. It’s an interdisciplinary field, involving physicists, computer scientists, biologists, mathematicians and medical doctors.

The rest of this story is in the print edition of Physics World, which you can subscribe to through membership in the Institute of Physics, which costs £15, €20, or $25 per year. You can join by clicking here. You can also get a nice mobile- and tablet-formatted version of the story using the Physics World app, available in the Google Play and iTunes stores. However, if you just want to read the rest of this article, Physics World has kindly allowed me to offer it to you as a PDF download, which looks exactly like the printed version!

Erwin Schrödinger is best known to non-scientists for his thought experiment involving a cat (or maybe his unconventional living arrangement), but he also wrote What is Life?, a book that attempted to bring the fields of physics and biology closer to each other. Today, experiment is beginning to reach the point where we can see if the specifically quantum aspects of physics play a direct role in biology. Even though in a fundamental sense, everything is quantum mechanical, the quantum state—the entity that encodes the probability of the outcomes of various interactions—doesn’t usually need to be considered for biology. However, it’s still possible life has learned to harness quantum effects, ranging from tunneling to entanglement, to gain an evolutionary advantage.

An intriguing aspect of all of these possibilities is that perhaps evolution has figured out a better way of performing tricky quantum manipulations than we have. In a sense, that’s not surprising: life has had a long time to evolve photosynthesis, photoreception, and navigation, while our understanding of quantum mechanics just began in the 1920s and ’30s. [Read more…]

Schrödinger’s gardenia: Does biology need quantum mechanics?