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. Theoretical Biological Physics To Get New $10 Million Research Center

why life is so is a critical question for scientists exploring bionic processes and their application to human technology solutions
La Jolla - Sep 26, 2002
A consortium of research institutions in La Jolla, Calif., has been awarded $10.5-million over the next five years from the National Science Foundation to establish the world's leading center in the emerging field of theoretical biological physics.

The new Center for Theoretical Biological Physics, or CTBP, will combine the intellectual resources of the University of California, San Diego's Division of Physical Sciences, the San Diego Supercomputer Center at UCSD, The Scripps Research Institute and The Salk Institute for Biological Studies.

It will bring together theoreticians and experimentalists from around the world to advance research and educate scientists in a discipline that uses the theoretical tools of physics to understand the fundamental principles governing complex biological systems.

This interdisciplinary approach-to be carried out jointly by physicists, chemists, mathematicians and biologists-will not only provide biologists with a better understanding of the underlying mechanisms governing complex biological systems, such as networks of neurons or biochemical pathways in the assembly of proteins, but allow physicists to develop new principles and models for complex systems based on biological phenomena.

"What we do in biological physics is to try to understand the fundamental, underlying laws governing biological systems, just as physicists have gained an understanding of the fundamental laws of physical matter," says Josť N. Onuchic, a professor of physics at UCSD and co-director of the center.

"If you understand these underlying principles, you can make predictions. And if you can make predictions and verify them, you gain insight into complex biological processes that now appear unpredictable."

In addition to generating biological insights, the center will also be a catalyst for the newly emerging field of complex system physics. According to Herbert Levine, a professor of physics at UCSD and the other co-director of the CTBP, "Understanding complexity, both biological and otherwise, is turning out to be one of the critical intellectual challenges of 21st century science. Our approach of using computation to couple data from experimental biology with conceptual frameworks provided by physicists will enable a whole host of breakthroughs, both for biology and physics."

The new center represents the first time that the Physics Division of the National Science Foundation is providing, through its Physics Frontier Center program, substantial support for biological physics. Additional funds will come from the science foundation's Information Technology Resource program, designed to support "visionary work" that could lead to major advances in information technology and its applications.

"It is very satisfying that our long-running efforts in establishing a paradigm for research and training at the interdisciplinary interface of physics and biology are being recognized and supported by the NSF," notes Charles L. Brooks III, a biophysics professor at TSRI.

"Their forward-looking initiative to establish the CTBP should provide a model for other funding agencies as we seek a more quantitative understanding of biology."

Onuchic says the computational expertise and resources of the San Diego Supercomputer Center combined with the intellectual resources of UCSD, TSRI and Salk in the field make this a unique center, one that will allow the field of biological physics to advance and gain influence within the traditional disciplines of biology and physics.

"No other place in the world has as many top people working in the field," he says. "And, we fully expect our students and postdoctoral trainees to be in high demand, as biological physics moves from the frontier to the mainstream of both physics and biology."

Other researchers involved in the center include Kim Baldridge, a UCSD chemistry and biochemistry professor and program director at the San Diego Supercomputer Center; UCSD physics professors Henry Abarbanel, Terrance Hwa and David Kleinfeld; UCSD physicist Wouter-Jan Rappel; UCSD chemistry and biochemistry professors J. Andrew professors J. Andrew McCammon and Peter Wolynes; UCSD mathematics professor Michael Holst; David Case, a molecular biologist at TSRI; Terrence Sejnowski, a neurobiologist at Salk and adjunct professor of physics and biology at UCSD; and Charles Stevens, a neurobiologist at Salk.

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