Biophysics: These are the voyages of a biologist in the physics galaxy

Post by Christine Horejs
Published in Physics
Biophysics: These are the voyages of a biologist in the physics galaxy

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Since starting my new endeavour as an Associate Editor on the Nature Reviews Materials team, I find myself often surrounded by physicists from all sorts of fields, during lunch, at the office Christmas party and at conferences. I have recently even participated in a discussion about axion particles while enjoying my burrito in the canteen. Well, to be fair, I hardly participated in this conversation, mainly owing to the fact that for the most part of it, I thought we were talking about axons in the brain. Anyhow, with a PhD in biophysics and a Postdoc in biomaterials, I still often feel like Captain Janeway in the Delta Quadrant, discovering new fields, principles, theories and yes, particles, every day – and feeling far away from home sometimes.

What makes biophysics so exciting in the ocean of interdisciplinary fields is the fact that the communities of biologist and physicists could not be further apart from each other in terms of methodology, theoretical background and publishing practices. Yet, this fusion of disciplines has led to important new insights into long-standing biological questions that could not have been easily tackled without the help and insight of physicists. Such collaborations certainly require an open mind. I still remember, during the first year of my PhD, when the physicist I was collaborating with suggested to model my complex, folded, 3D protein (which took me a whole year to recombinantly express in bacteria) as a simple sphere with some surface charges – shocking! But the truth is, using his simplified assumption we could beautifully simulate how this protein self-assembles, which was later experimentally confirmed.

The field of high-resolution microscopy is probably the most striking example of how physics helped to revolutionize the way we see many biological processes. Super-resolution microscopy, developed by physicists, allowed us for the first time to truly observe single proteins in a cell. Force spectroscopy enabled the measurement of biological forces in the piconewton range, unthinkable with traditional biochemical bulk methods. A picobalance, engineered by biophysicists, facilitated the measurement of the mass of a single living cell. How tissues evolve and how cells move has been described using models borrowed from the physics of active matter, which led to fascinating insights into cancer cell migration and tumour biology. Drug testing is greatly being improved by molecular modelling and computer simulations. And this list could go on and on, and I must confess, it is a bit biased towards my own previous work.

However, aforementioned examples illustrate the fruitful synergy between physics and biology, and the field is certainly ripe for exciting future collaborations and new discoveries. So, whoever feels sometimes like Captain Janeway when reading physics papers or when starting new interdisciplinary collaborations, just embrace the other field and boldly discover the new Quadrant – Engage!

Christine Horejs

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Physical Sciences > Physics and Astronomy