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Course Theme: New Materials for Living Systems

Living systems are complicated. Our recently acquired ability to process and analyze big data has spawned the "-omic" sciences: genomics, transcriptomics, proteomics, etc. These sciences consider genes, proteins, and ligands as information objects that interact with each other in networks in order to create and sustain living systems. At one level, the study of life involves the study of information and networks and their biological functions. Underlying these high-level considerations are molecular processes described via chemistry and physics. Increased understanding across levels simplifies concepts, allowing us to imagine bio-mimetic solutions to human problems. Biotechnology and bioengineering rely upon the synthesis of concepts, ideas and approaches from all the basic sciences and the power of integrating these approaches is fueling the development of new materials. 

 - Dr. Ellis Bell, chemistry  

Unlike engineered materials developed so far, living materials can self-heal, grow and self-organize.  The strength of living materials results from highly correlated compressed parts that work in unison. Muscles, cytoskeleton, cell membranes, are systems that show this synergy. Understanding this architecture, termed biotensegrity, explains why some living organisms are better engineered than a Space shuttle, being at the same time flexible and robust.  There is a lot to learn from Living Nature and to translate into human-designed products. The IQS theme "New Materials for Living Systems", bridges science math and computer science to teach students the ability to understanding and emulate living systems activities in materials that serve human needs. This requires collaboration among scientists from diverse disciplines. To enable collaborations scientists trained in and conversant with the problems and methods of several disciplines are necessary. 

 - Dr. Ovidiu Lipan, physics 

My expertise is in the study of ion channels, pore-forming membrane proteins that regulate the flow of ions into and out of a cell. I'm interested in both evolutionary and adaptive questions. How are ion channels in different life forms related to one another structurally and physiologically? In particular, how did cellular excitability evolve and what adaptations in ion channel structure and function were required to support electrical activity of cells and eventually allow the development of a nervous system? Not all ion channels work in the same way and even a single ion channel can change its function in response to the presence of various lipids and steroid hormones. What in the cellular environment leads to the production of these modulators? How, chemically, do they modify the structure of a channel? What is the physiological significance of the changes? Our course theme allows me (and you) to integrate these sorts of research questions with the knowledge and perspectives from the other disciplines.

 - Dr. Linda Boland, biology

Researchers developing new materials based on living systems are at the same time leveraging their inherent information processing capabilities. This takes many forms, ranging from mechanisms that allow organisms to effectively search for food in the face of intermittent information about the food's location, up to sensory tasks in complex organisms. There is a long history of intellectual cross-pollination between computer scientists and biologists - we borrow shamelessly from each other. Computer scientists use ideas gleaned from various self-organizing biological systems to develop modeling techniques, or from human cognitive systems to build artificial neural networks that are becoming expert at tasks like facial recognition. Biologists use algorithmic thinking to develop hypotheses regarding the underlying mechanisms for biological actions, then use computer simulation to compare their results to observed behavior. Scientists in the area of bioengineering have long used the vocabulary of circuit design to describe their work to add functionality to living systems. Recent work at MIT has resulted in a programming language for specifying such circuits. The researcher writes a program describing the behavior they wish to insert, and compiles it into the DNA sequence that produces that behavior in the target organism. In this particular application, we see a very direct connection between computing, biology and chemistry.

 - Dr. Lewis Barnett, computer science  

Scientific understanding is enhanced through mathematics, from the mathematics required to analyze and interpret data collected in the lab through simple modeling that describes biological, chemical, and physical processes, to the creation of new models for how things might work that often precede and direct experimental efforts or engineering design. When I think about "New Materials for Living Systems" I think about what we can learn from biomaterials at three different scales. In the small, I start at the cell membrane -- what is the physical structure that allows chemicals to pass through the membrane, how fast do those chemicals diffuse and react, and how are those reactions regulated? Collectively, cells form tissues -- how do material properties allow tissues to develop and to maintain stability of e.g., water content, pH, and temperature? Organisms respond to stimuli -- how do nerve tissues transmit signals and how do nerve impulses control the contraction of muscle tissue? Most interesting to me is figuring out what mathematics can be used in describing, simulating, and predicting behavior at these scales of organization. 

 - Dr. Michael Kerckhove, mathematics