Eminent bioengineering scholar to lead UChicago’s Center for Physics of Evolving Systems

The University of Chicago is launching the Center for Physics of Evolving Systems to study the secrets behind the extraordinary efficiency, flexibility and robustness of biological systems designed via evolution.

The new center will span the Division of the Biological Sciences and the Institute for Molecular Engineering, bringing together faculty across biology, physics and engineering, and potentially the humanities.

Nature is full of systems that boggle the minds of engineers. Built by evolution, these systems—like the proteins in our cells—are constantly performing very precise and complex tasks, while adapting to startlingly fast to new conditions. This fascinates scientists, who want to illuminate the fundamental principles of design and physics at play—both to understand biology and disease and to improve engineering.

To lead the center, prominent scientist Rama Ranganathan has joined UChicago as professor in the Department of Biochemistry and Molecular Biology and the Institute for Molecular Engineering. He will also lead the BioCARS beamline at the Advanced Photon Source at Argonne National Laboratory.

“Collaboration across several scientific disciplines has always been a defining feature of research at the University of Chicago,” said Kenneth Polonsky, dean of the Biological Sciences Division and Pritzker School of Medicine, and executive vice president for medical affairs at the University of Chicago. “The creation of this new center, with Professor Ranganathan at the helm, continues that tradition as we explore the fundamental mechanisms that define all biological systems.”

Ranganathan studies the evolution of biological systems like proteins and cellular signaling—decoding the complex processes by which cells communicate with each other and sense their environments. His laboratory combines experimental laboratory work with modeling and simulation, all to unravel the dynamics of biological systems.

“My goal has always been the understanding of living systems and the design principles that underlie them,” Ranganathan said. “Thanks to a series of breakthroughs in the past decade, we’re now at a point where we can begin transitioning now from studying parts of the system to trying to understand the whole.”

Once one understands evolution, Ranganathan said, one can bring the same principles to bear to engineering; man-made machines lag far behind natural systems in their flexibility and resilience.

“Professor Ranganathan’s focus on understanding the curious mix of robustness and sensitivity of biological systems holds many instructive insights for several of the Institute for Molecular Engineering’s goals, such as our immunology program,” said Matt Tirrell, the founding Pritzker Director of the Institute for Molecular Engineering.

Ranganathan said that he was attracted to UChicago’s approach to basic science research. “I’ve always admired the University’s enormous commitment to fundamental sciences,” he said. The breadth of the University’s research was attractive as well: “This really resonates with my idea of the Center for Physics of Evolving Systems, which is to draw from the strengths of different areas to try to address this problem of evolution.”

Ranganathan arrives from the University of Texas-Southwestern, where he led the Cecil H. and Ida Green Center for Systems Biology.

He received his bachelor’s degree in bioengineering at the University of California, Berkeley, and his MD and PhD from the University of California, San Diego.