Case study: Biologists look for a physical connection

The determination of the structure of DNA in a physics laboratory half a century ago revolutionized biology. Chris St Pourçain explains that physicists can once again play a crucial role in transforming the biological sciences

The remarkable progress in the biological sciences over the last 50 years began not in a biology department but in a physics department: the Cavendish Laboratory at the University of Cambridge in the UK. The breakthrough was the determination of the structure of DNA in 1953, and its double helix has since become an instantly recognizable symbol of the biological sciences. It is worth remembering, however, that two of the four people involved in this groundbreaking work were physicists: Francis Crick and Maurice Wilkins. Rosalind Franklin was a physical chemist and only James Watson had a background in biology. DNA is a defining example of the advances that can be made by working across traditional disciplines, and in particular the contribution that non-biologists can bring to solving biological problems.

So much for past glories; why do the biological sciences still need physicists today? The reason is that while the biological sciences have previously been largely descriptive, they are becoming increasingly quantitative. This trend – identified by the UK's Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council (BBSRC) in its "Ten Year Vision" in 2003 – offers the promise of exciting scientific advances at the interfaces between the biological sciences and physics, chemistry, mathematics and engineering.

Quantifying biology
Biological systems are extraordinarily complex, and to understand them as an integrated whole requires mathematical modelling. Systems that can be studied in this way range in scale from the fundamental properties and functions of molecules, through the regulation and feedback mechanisms occurring in individual cells, organs and whole organisms, to the interactions of organisms with their environment. The shift to a quantitative understanding of biological systems is still in its infancy and so physical scientists now have a great chance to make an impact on the progress of the biosciences.

A major international review of the state of physics in the UK published in February of this year (see Physics World February p9), identified biophysics as one of the fastest growing cross-disciplinary areas in modern physics. Encouragingly, UK biophysics was identified as internationally competitive and enjoying a rejuvenation.

However, the review also noted that much of this research is not carried out in university physics departments. Although this limits the exposure of physics students to biophysics, it also means that there are exciting opportunities for physicists to do research outside their traditional departments.

Progress in the biological sciences, as in physics, is driven both by new hypotheses and by developments in technology, and physicists have an important role to play in both of these areas. The Diamond synchrotron source, due to open in Oxfordshire in 2007, will produce X-ray, infrared and ultraviolet beams of exceptional brightness. This will provide physicists and bioscientists with excellent opportunities to work together to determine the structure and function of biological systems; for example in X-ray crystallographic studies of the photosynthetic reaction centres on which life on Earth depends.

Funding opportunities
Many funding opportunities are available for collaborations between physicists and biologists (see box opposite). The Discipline Hopping Awards scheme – a partnership between the BBSRC, the Medical Research Council and the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC) – provides support for initial cross-disciplinary collaborations. Physicists who have been supported by this scheme include Seb Oliver of the University of Sussex, for applying astronomical image-processing techniques to nano-scale protein assembly, and Quentin Pankhurst of University College London, for work on a magnetic manipulator for sub-cellular biological research.

Other funding schemes include the new BBSRC Tools and Resources Development Fund, which aims to kick-start the development of new technologies for the biosciences and the adaptation of existing technologies from other disciplines to biology. More substantial funding for technology transfer and development is available through the Technology Development Research Initiative (a BBSRC/EPSRC partnership).

The BBSRC, together with the Council for the Central Laboratory of the Research Councils and the Particle Physics and Astronomy Research Council (PPARC), also aids communication between academia and industry through the Sensors Knowledge Transfer Network. And the BBSRC supports the opto-technologies and bio-technologies key areas of the Institute of Physics' Emerging Technology Programme, as well as sponsoring meetings and conferences.

Brokering collaboration
An obvious problem for collaborations across disciplines is that if the members of the different communities do not meet each other, they will not be aware of each other's problems and solutions. This lack of communication is perhaps most acute between physicists and bioscientists. Even if they are brought together in workshops to discuss areas of common interest, collaborations are unlikely to be successful unless funds are available to nurture projects in their early stages.

To tackle these problems, the BBSRC has recently begun to experiment with "brokering meetings" in targeted areas. These bring physicists and biologists together and provide funding of about £100,000 for up to 18 months for any collaborations arising directly from the meeting. This allows preliminary results to be generated that will hopefully form the basis of more substantial applications.

The first such meeting, on bioimaging, was held in October 2005 in Oxfordshire, in partnership with PPARC. A total of 11 bioscientists were brought together with a similar number of particle physicists and astronomers to share their common interest in imaging detectors and signal analysis. Encouragingly, eight resulting proposals were funded, although we will not know for at least three years if these initial collaborations will lead to more substantial long-term projects.

Half a century on from the discovery of the structure of DNA, biology is being transformed into a quantitative science. This change is increasingly dependent on the involvement of physical scientists, engineers and mathematicians. So there is no time like the present to think about a fulfilling long-term relationship with the biological sciences.

Linking physics and biology

Funding opportunities


About the author
Chris St Pourçain is programme manager for cross-disciplinary research at the BBSRC