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There are numerous reasons why biologists can benefit from training in the fields of engineering and physics.  One, often neglected reason, is that simple physical principles can be used to create new intellectual frameworks for understanding seemingly impenetrable biological processes.  This message shone through the first two talks of the day.  L. Mahadaven (Harvard) who, in a wonderful marriage between experiment and theory, described how development of the complex morphology of the gut can be simply understood if one considers the different mechanical properties of the underlying tissues.  This was followed up by Kai Simons (Max Planck Institute of Molecular Cell Biology and Genetics), who provided compelling evidence that components of the cell membrane undergo phase separation.  The importance of this should not be understated as this physical principle of self-organization may provide a mechanistic understanding of the dynamic events of this chemically complex structure.

Next up was Ewa Paluch (MRC Laboratory for Molecular Cell Biology, UCL) who described her investigations into the highly dynamic meshwork of proteins known as the cell cortex.  In doing so, the audience was provided with wonderful examples of the breakthroughs in biology that can only come about by a combination of precise quantitative measurements and mathematical modeling.  Last but not least, Clifford Brangwynne (Princeton) closed the session by bringing us back to the concept of phase separation as a fundamental principle of self-organization in biological systems.  Elegant studies from the Brangwynne lab not only demonstrate that a number of the membrane-free subcellular compartments of eukaryotic cells behave as liquid droplets, but implicate the interaction between RNA and proteins with intrinsically disordered domains in this process.  The fact that proteins with intrinsically disordered domains are pervasive throughout biology makes one wonder just how many biological processes involve phase separation effects.

All speakers paid reverence to the late mathematical biologist Sir D’Arcy Wentworth Thompson, who inspired many scientists with his seminal book On Growth and Form.  98 years on from the publication of this book, this wonderful symposium will no doubt have inspired the numerous attendees to contemplate the mathematical beauty of nature.

Note: The Engineering and Physical Biology (EPB) Symposium is an annual event that culminates the year’s activities for the EPB graduate track, part of MCO.  The Symposium day includes a public event in the morning, which is followed by an afternoon session of presentations by EPB students for a smaller audience of fellow students, faculty and the morning’s speakers.  An EPB dinner at the Society of Fellows rounds out the day.  This year’s morning session was attended by more than 80 people.  Martin White is a Postdoctoral Fellow in the Kleckner lab.

Link to the 2015 EPB Symposium announcement