Recent advances in molecular biology, physics, chemistry, and engineering have revolutionized our ability to measure biological processes in space and time. However, many of the great questions in biology—the origin of life, morphogenesis, homeostasis, aging—remain open. A key concept behind these questions is emergence, the creation of higher-order structure, organization, behavior and function from simpler components and their interactions. Although emergent phenomena are ubiquitous in biology, a mathematical formalization of emergence remains elusive. While differential equations and dynamical systems theory have provided a foundation for theoretical biology and gone some way to explaining the origins of morphogenesis and behavior, new mathematical, statistical and physical approaches will be needed to more closely integrate theory with experimental data so as to make biology a truly predictive science.
The QBI will tackle a wide range of biological problems involving the emergence of structure and function. Current questions addressed by QBI faculty include the maintenance of phenotypic diversity in populations (Thierry), the eluciation of 3D structure from electron microscope projections (Lederman), branching morphogenesis (Howard), cellular packing in bacterial communities (Jing), and the neuronal computation in the visual system (Clark).