For the past 50-100 years, biology at the molecular and cellular levels has been viewed primarily as the aggregate sum of a large number of individual events and the interactions amongst them. A group of ~25 members of the Faculty of Arts and Sciences have recently come together as the daVinci Group on the basis of their shared belief that the next round of fundamental advances in the life sciences will emerge by viewing biological processes in a very different way: as manifestations of the fundamental principles that apply to all types of systems non-biological and biological. By this view, life can be described not in terms of collections of diverse specific molecular and cellular details but in a more unifying and fundamental way as the manifestation and implementation of basic physical laws and universal principles of engineering and physics. It may not be too extreme to suggest that the next major breakthrough, analogous to the discovery and elucidation of the structure of DNA, will come from this new approach. We characterize this approach as "viewing living systems through the lens of physics and engineering". The corresponding discipline is best described by the term "Physical Biology".
From an engineering/physics perspective, a particular phenomenon may reflect the operation of chemical, electrical and/or mechanical processes. Our challenge is to determine how these basic physical effects have been brought together in biological systems. From this perspective, biological phenomena can be grouped into three major categories: mechanics and dynamics; patterns and collective behaviors; and transport, signalling and communication. Research in the daVinci Center spans all of these areas, with a primary focus on processes at the molecular and cellular levels and thus on micro- and nano-scale biology.
Long term goal
Physical Biology is a just-emerging area of intense scientific interest throughout the world. The ultimate goal of the daVinci Group is to make Harvard University the place to be in this area, with innovative new thinking and research taking place immediately, and revolutionary new ideas emerging from the Group and its alumni 25 years hence.
To achieve these goals, we will pursue a unique research and educational philosophy. At present, nearly all research at the life sciences/physical sciences interface occurs by collaborations between scientists in the two areas. The aim of the daVinci Group, instead, will be to create and collect a new generation of scientists who can work comfortably and simultaneously in both areas. Furthermore, progress in Physical Biology, as in all experimental sciences, will be limited by the emergence of new methodologies. An overriding conceptual theme will be the development of innovative new ways of measuring physical and mechanical forces and effects in living cells. We also note that, in all of its endeavors, the daVinci Group will place a very high priority on imaginative and creative thinking. This priority is reflected in the choice of Leonardo daVinci as a namesake. It also follows the well-known dictum of Albert Einstein that "imagination is more important than knowledge".
History To Date
The daVinci Group is a self-assembled community. It was nucleated
by scientific interactions between Professors Hutchinson (DEAS)
and Kleckner (MCB), which also led to a joint course given by Stone,
Brenner and Hutchinson (DEAS) plus Kleckner, Guidotti and Jeruzalmi
(MCB) [ES210]. The Group per se came to full fruition during the
past academic year, 2004-2005. The daVinci Group met for two highly
successful one-day "retreats", one in September and one
in June. Each retreat comprised a series of short talks. The June
retreat involved nearly 75 people including both faculty and
students, with a wide range of interesting research presented. Concomitantly,
the daVinci Group has formulated and successfully initiated a new
track for PhD training in Engineering
and Physical Biology, or "EPB". EPB will admit its
first students in the upcoming admissions cycle for matriculation
in September, 2006.
In the upcoming year, activities of the daVinci Group will include "Monthly Lunch", a community group meeting of short research talks and "EPB activities", a series of interactions centered around development of the new EPB graduate program. Additionally, the daVinci Group has taken steps towards becoming not simply a "virtual" center an actual center, with additional resources. To this end an initiative to create a daVinci Center for Physical Biology has been proposed to Dean Venky Narayanamurti (Dean of Physical Sciences and of the Division of Engineering and Applied Sciences) and Doug Melton (Chairman of the Life Sciences Council). To view and/or download the proposal document: White Paper: The daVinci Center for Physical Biology.
For More Information About the daVinci Group and its Activities
Contact one of the daVinci Center co-organizers:
Herchel Smith Professor of Molecular Biology
Department of Molecular Biology
Edward Mallinckrodt Professor of Physics
Department of Physics