Editor’s note: Big Brains is a new University of Chicago podcast in which some of the pioneering minds on campus discuss their groundbreaking ideas and the stories behind them.
From the smallest proteins to entire ecosystems, nature might be the most sophisticated engineer on earth.
Researchers like UChicago molecular biologist Rama Ranganathan are trying to uncover the basic design principles that govern biology and apply them through engineering. He calls the field “evolutionary physics,” and the goal is to unlock the secrets of evolutionary history.
“Evolution has taken millions and millions of years,” Ranganathan said. “How do we reproduce that in the laboratory?”
Ranganathan is a professor in the Department of Biochemistry and Molecular Biology and the Institute for Molecular Engineering. He joined the University of Chicago in late 2017 to lead the newly formed Center for Physics of Evolution, which brings together researchers from across disciplines to better understand biological systems designed by evolution.
Ranganathan said biology has built “high-performance” systems that can adapt to their environment in ways of which human-designed technology could never dream. He believes there is a unifying theory that can explain the phenomenon and be utilized in bioengineering—from designer medicines based on individual genomes to biofuels driven by the same processes as photosynthesis.
“The problem is: If you start taking apart biological systems, since they are evolved systems, we don’t necessarily understand their design,” Ranganathan said. “The question is: How do you learn the simple rules that are underneath these seemingly very complex systems?”
On this episode of Big Brains, Ranganathan shares his pioneering research on evolutionary physics, and explains why he believes biology is at a similar point today as engineering was two centuries ago during the Industrial Revolution.