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Nonequilibrium Physics in Biology: December 3 – 7, 2018

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Organized by: Jin Wang, Ken Dill, Michael Douglas, Jose Onuchic

The aim of this workshop is to bring together leading researchers from around the world to discuss current progress in uncovering emergent phenomena and design principles that allow living systems to function, develop and evolve under nonequilibrium conditions. It will be organized to encourage discussion between diverse research communities of fundamental physical, mathematical and biological questions in nonequilibrium dynamics across many spatial and temporal scales. This will be the very first workshop dedicated to nonequilibrium physics and mathematics in biology at the Simons Center. We hope this becomes the Woodstock of Nonequilibrium Physics in Biology.

The topics for the workshop discussions include:

  1. Search for the possible principles and emergent laws based on nonequilibrium dynamics and thermodynamics for biology.
  2. The mathematical foundations and underlying geometrical/topological connections behind the nonequilibrium dynamics and thermodynamics as well as the implications to biology.
  3. How nonequilibrium dynamics and thermodynamics determine the structure, dynamics and functions of the intracellular and intercellular networks.
  4. How nonequilibrium dynamics and thermodynamics shape the evolution and ecology.

Biology poses challenging questions from the point of view of current physics and mathematics. For example, are there underlying“laws of life”?  If so, what are they?  If such laws can be found, what is the physics and mathematics behind them? The physicist Schrödinger asked how the creation of order by living things, which must follow physical laws, could be consistent with the Second Law of Thermodynamics. His answer was that living systems can never be in thermodynamic equilibrium and must always exchange material, energy and information with a larger environment. Thus, to quantify a living system requires a nonequilibrium description. While the physics and mathematics of equilibrium systems is well developed, nonequilibrium physics and mathematics remain a fundamental challenge to the physics and mathematics community. In other words, we will need to develop new physics and mathematics to quantify the laws of life.

There has been significant recent progress in the physics and mathematics of nonequilibrium dynamics.  Recent work has suggested that the nonequilibrium dynamics is governed by both the underlying landscape and by the steady state probability flux. The flux has a nonconservative (nonzero curl) component which measures the degree of the detailed balance breaking, and quantifies the departure from the equilibrium. On the other hand, the recent developments of nonequilibrium thermodynamics have suggested forms for the thermodynamic driving forces and associated fluctuating statistics for nonequilibrium systems. Interestingly, this recent progress has also suggested geometrical, topological and gauge field descriptions of these driving forces. All of these progresses suggest the possibility of underlying emergent laws. Mutual information optimization and Maximum Caliber have been recently suggested as criteria to test hypotheses about biological function under nonequilibrium conditions against the data. These emergent laws and rich mathematical and physical structures are waiting to be explored.

On the biology front, there are also many challenging questions. These include, how the departure from equilibrium influences cell signaling, gene regulations, epigenetics, the structure and dynamics of intracellular circuitry, cell cycles, cell structures and dynamics, stem cell differentiation and development, neural networks and brain functions, ecology and finally evolution itself, in terms of sensitivity, speed, adaptivity, energy cost, stability, robustness and evolvability. In addition, there are challenging practical questions such as how specific characteristics of the nonequilibrium dynamics of the human body can play a role in diseases such as cancer, aging, immune dysfunction, bacterial infections, Alzheimer’s disease and Parkinson’s disease, etc.

Workshop Application Deadline: September 30, 2018 (or when the event is at maximum capacity). Applicants will be contacted soon after this date.