Using Physics to Tackle Questions About Life

Chad Boutin in the Princeton Weekly Bulletin looks at the work of 3QD friend Thomas Gregor and his colleagues:


In the equipment-filled rooms of Princeton’s Icahn Laboratory, nearly everything in sight is advancing through some stage of development. Newly hatched fruit flies crowd each other in their glass tube nurseries; a freshly modified microscope for examining the insects exposes its wire-forested innards. A recent biology paper lies open to its last page, where the list of new questions the work has inspired beckons a future research team to probe the mysteries of life even further.

For the past five years, a quartet of Princeton researchers has undergone a development of its own, trying to resolve a tricky and timeworn issue about the first moments of life by examining the fruit fly. The effort has netted the group not only a surprising discovery and two papers in a prominent scientific journal, but plaudits from scientists at other institutions, who have hailed the work as setting a new standard for the integration of physics and biology.

“This team broke down biology until they could study it with physics, and it’s only through that kind of detailed analysis that we can see the complicated dynamics that go on in biological systems,” said Nipam Patel, a professor of molecular and cell biology at the University of California-Berkeley. “Their work is a marriage between people who are experts in one field, but who understand and appreciate the other field. It’s a nice blueprint for these kinds of collaborations.”

Their collaboration grew out of a quest for a different sort of blueprint — the one that biologists have sought ever since they peered through microscopes to witness what physicist David Tank refers to as “magic”: a complex animal like the fruit fly developing from a single egg, seemingly from nothing.

(See also this piece in