The National Science Foundation has awarded $15.5 million to researchers at the University of Chicago over six years to establish a new field of physics that focuses on how living matter can store, retrieve, and process information.
Known as the Center for Living Systems, it is one of four newly funded National Science Foundation Physics Frontier Centers in 2023 nationwide and will be led by Margaret Gardel, the Horace B. Horton Professor of Physics and Molecular Engineering.
“We aim to establish a new field of physics that focuses on how living matter adapts to its environment on timescales ranging from milliseconds to billions of years,” said Gardel, director of the James Franck Institute and member of the Institute for Biophysical Dynamics. “This will both deepen our understanding of living systems and open opportunities for new technologies.”
“The new Center for Living Systems reflects UChicago’s tradition of defining new fields of science,” says Angela Olinto, dean of the Physical Sciences Division. “We are looking forward to the ground-breaking discoveries in the multidisciplinary approach to the physics of living systems.”
Physicists have traditionally focused on materials in our physical, or non-living world—from understanding how they deform in response to external force to how electrical charge may be stored or moved around.
However, life is a form of matter that poses new questions and applications that haven’t yet been explored as deeply, the scientists said.
“Living matter continually changes its structure in response to its environment and evolves in an open-ended way, something that non-living matter typically does not do—even though both are subject to the same rules of physics,” said Arvind Murugan, an associate professor of physics and member of the James Franck Institute, who will serve as deputy director for the center.