stochastic organismal dynamics: precision measurements and emergent simplicities
“Nature does nothing in vain, and more is in vain when less will serve; for Nature is pleased with simplicity, and affects not the pomp of superfluous causes.” — Isaac Newton
Discovering physical principles that govern stochastic single-cell behavior, and transcend the details of specific biological systems, is the primary focus of our research. As evidenced in physical systems, symmetry and scaling arguments are appealing not simply for their elegance, but for their universality and predictive power, since they strongly constrain how the physical system is allowed to behave. Thus the quest for similar general constraints in biological systems is a worthwhile endeavor.
Phil Anderson’s famous exhortation to consider “the whole as more than the sum of its parts” is perhaps nowhere more relevant than for biological systems, where spectacular collective behaviors emerge at the population or tissue levels from the constitutive dynamics at the cellular level. Yet, in contrast to standard condensed matter systems, the basic physical laws governing dynamics at the cellular level in the benign “non-interacting” limit of cells, i.e., for isolated cells in well-defined conditions, have themselves been hard to establish.
The reasons are twofold: first, the cell is a far-from-equilibrium system and the dynamics are also often highly stochastic, so standard physics results are inadmissible; second, experimentally, it has been a daunting challenge to observe a single cell precisely for multiple cellular lifetimes under controlled and reproducible growth conditions. We work on finding unique solutions for both the theoretical and experimental challenges, by building both on a versatile experimental technology and theoretical methods that we have previously developed.
Specifically, we focus on elucidating the role of stochasticity in determining single-cell behavior in three different contexts: cell-to-cell variability in copy numbers, the timing of key events, and the spatial locations of key geometrical features.
Interested in joining our group? Please contact me for postdoctoral, graduate and undergraduate research opportunities.