Applying and developing concepts from statistical and theoretical soft-condensed matter physics, as well as applied mathematics, to describe biological systems.

Biology, at its most fundamental, cannot reasonably be disentangled from that of physics.  That is, thermodynamics, hydrodynamics, statistical mechanics and soft-condensed matter physics, far from being subjects distinct from biology, are in fact, the building blocks of all living matter.  As Goldenfeld and Woese [1]  rightly pointed out a decade ago, even evolution--- the conductor that has orchestrated life as we know it-is an emergent phenomena of classical physics itself.

But, biology is very hard.  Especially when seen through the eyes of a physicist.  Systems are very far from equilibrium and typically involve enormous numbers of coupled degrees-of-freedom.  All of which is compounded by the fact that Occam's Razor-that the simplest description is the right description-rarely works, because evolution ensures that systems operate in a way that reflects their history as well as their current function.

We are therefore led to ask: can science develop adequate, quantitative theories of living systems, such that experiment and theory work 'hand in glove' like much of modern fundamental physics?  This is the question that concerns the Morris Group, which applies and develops concepts from statistical and theoretical soft-condensed matter physics, as well as applied mathematics, in order to describe living matter.

The focus spans a range of length-scales, from molecular signaling on a sub-cellular scale, to emergent phenomena at the tissue scale and beyond.  We work closely with experimental partners, typically studying systems in which an interplay between mechanics, geometry and information processing is important.

[1] N. Goldenfeld & C. Woese, Annu. Rev. Condens. Matter Phys. 2:375–99 (2011)

Currently, our research is organised around the following broad themes:

  • Noise-induced phenomena

Question: when is noise more than simply a nuisance, obscuring an underlying signal?  Answer: when the noise is the signal.  This is the root of noise-induced phenomena, which are particularly important in systems that behave collectively, such as migrating cells or swarming animals, for example.  We are interested both in the empirical identification of such behaviour, and also its mathematical characterisation.

  • Growth and function

Traditionally, mathematical descriptions of growth have focused on how it affects form - i.e.,  shape and size.  By contrast, we are interested in how growth affects the function of the system, where the timescales of growth and internal dynamics cannot be separated. This includes cancerous systems, or populations of bacteria, for example.

  • Morphogenesis

The emergence of shape and anatomy has long fascinated scientists from a wide range of disciplines.  Amongst other things, we are interested in understanding the information encoded in such complex shape changes.  In particular, how observations of moprhogenetic tissues can be used in the inverse-sense, to infer behaviour at the level of the individual cells such as biochemical signalling or mechano-transduction, for example.

  • Molecular signalling and information processing at cell membranes

How molecular populations and their interactions encode the many important processes that occur at the cell membrane is a vast and open field.  Using a variety of techniques - covariant two-dimensional fluid dynamics, statistical mechanics and active hydrodynamics - we are interested in a number of problems relating to membrane organisation, force-generation, feedback and control.