Physical Principles in Biological Networks

A series of one day workshops.
Mar 24, 2009Apr 30, 2009
PCTS, Jadwin Hall, Room 407


Event Description

Organizing committee:  William Bialek, Curtis Callan, Aleksandra Walczak, and Ned Wingreen

This semester, the Princeton Center for Theoretical Science will host a small program on Physical Principles in Biological Networks, organized as a series of one day workshops.  The workshops are free, but registration is required on line at

Almost everything that happens in living systems is the result of interactions among many elements -- a network.  Our perceptions and thoughts result from dynamics in networks of neurons, during embryonic development decisions about cell fate and spatial patterning are shaped by networks of interacting genes, networks of interactions among amino acids stabilize the structure of proteins, and there are many other examples.  Recent progress in experimental technique has focused attention on how one can infer aspects of the underlying network from the observable phenomenology, but there is a stream of work in the theoretical physics community which is asking for more than this:  Can we find principles that govern the network dynamics, principles which would allow us to predict (rather than just fit) the rich phenomenology of these systems?  Importantly, recent work has seen the successful application of similar principles (e.g., maximizing robustness to parameter variation, or optimizing the transmission of information) to very different biological systems.  This theoretical work has engaged with the details of real experiments, bridging a huge cultural gap. Even so, deep questions as to goals, methods and feasibility of this approach to biological networks remain open. This program will bring together theoretical physicists who have driven recent progress in this area to engage in an organized, critical discussion of these issues. 

The program is organized into six full day workshops.  The first four will be focused on theoretical ideas that cut across multiple systems, and the last two will look at particular systems, with strong input from our experimental friends.  On each of the four theory days, we will have a small number of longer talks that set the stage for informal discussion. The two experimental days will have a more traditional conference format.

Theory days 

Tuesday 24 March:  Robustness vs fine tuning.  

Provocateurs:  Larry Abbott (Columbia), Chao Tang (UCSF)

Dinner Talk by John Hopfield, Princeton University


Tuesday 31 March: Modularity.

Provocateurs:  Chris Wiggins (Columbia), Eduardo Sontag (Rutgers)


Thursday 9 April: Finding the right operating point.

Provocateurs:  Daniel Fisher (Stanford), Paul Francois (Rockefeller), Eric Siggia (Rockefeller)


Thursday 16 April: Signals, noise and information.

Provocateurs:  William Bialek (Princeton), Anirvan Sengupta (Rutgers)


Experiment days

Tuesday 21 April: Collective behavior in networks of real neurons.  

Speakers:  Michael J. Berry II (Princeton), Carlos Brody (Princeton), Gasper Tkacik (U.Penn), Samuel S-H Wang (Princeton)


Thursday 30 April: Early events in the Drosophila embryo  

Speakers:  Elizabeth Gavis (Princeton), Thomas Gregor (Princeton), Stanislav Shvartsman (Princeton), Eric F. Wieschaus (Princeton)