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  Reported by
  John Easton, AM'77
  Carrie Golus, AB'91, AM'93
  Richard Mertens
  Sharla Stewart
  Mary Ruth Yoe

  Photography by
  Dan Dry


  > > The End of Consulting?
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Records of a Revolution
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Campus of the Big Ideas
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You Go Girl!


Chicago: Campus of the Big Ideas
The launch of The Chicago Initiative-the University's five-year, $2 billion fund-raising effort-was marked by an April 12 event that focused on Chicago's intellectual initiatives.

Integrating the physical and biological sciences: what lies ahead?



One is immutable and one is evolving. One is largely theoretical, the other often observational. One is hard and pristine, the other tends to the soft and sticky.

Yet scholars from the physical and the biological sciences met to talk about how their fields, once quite distinct, have begun to blur-and why that's a good thing.

IMAGE:  Milan Mrksich explains new ways to study cell surfaces.
Milan Mrksich explains new ways to study cell surfaces.

The session grew out of two campus projects, one small and one huge. The small project was an effort by plant geneticist Daphne Preuss, professor in molecular genetics & cell biology, to understand pollen's elective affinities. Why, she wondered, does a grain of pollen stick to the slippery female parts of one flower yet slide right off another? Each plant's pollen, she found, carries tiny surface markers, like molecular Velcro, that let them latch on when they land on a related species but lack sticking power with nonrelatives.

How the markers work is an interesting question, but not one the tools of biology equipped her to answer. So Preuss brought in David Grier, an associate professor in physics, to measure the strength of the tiny attachments, which turned out to be more powerful than any glue, and Milan Mrksich, an associate professor in chemistry, to isolate and purify the markers.

Such teamwork underlies a much more massive endeavor. Now in the planning stages, the Interdivisional Research Building will be the largest research facility in the University's history, and at its center will be the Institute for Biophysical Dynamics, a haven for division-crossing projects.

Although biology has shifted its central focus to smaller and smaller objects-from organisms to tissues to cells to proteins and genes-by physical science standards, these substances are still comparatively large. Physicists have spent decades perfecting ways to manipulate far smaller molecules and single atoms.

For example, Grier makes optical traps-precisely focused, minute beams of light that he uses like chopsticks to capture and move particles measured in nanometers. He has used the traps to measure, among other things, the elasticity of DNA. Meanwhile, Milan Mrksich borrows techniques from the semiconductor industry to develop tools that assess cell-surface proteins and even carbohydrates, such as those on pollen. The protein and carbohydrate arrays can be used to identify molecules that control cell migration, which is useful for wound repair-and also responsible for the spread of cancers.

Applying chemistry and physics to biological problems is not only, as Grier joked, a "back door to a more lucrative area." Collaboration lets both divisions move forward at an unprecedented pace, with results likely to have medical and scientific payoffs. Biologists can go after once inaccessible, fundamental problems. And physical scientists, accustomed to dealing with theoretical problems and immutable laws, can study moving targets-or, as Grier put it, they can "dive into systems that are highly evolved, evolving, and evolvable."

Where will such efforts lead? "We simply don't know," warned Eugene Goldwasser, SB'43, PhD'50, the Alice Hogge & Arthur A. Baer professor emeritus in biochemisty & molecular biology. He's experienced in imprecise predictions: soon after World War II he set out to isolate erythropoietin, the hormone that prompts red-blood cell production. He thought it would take a few months; it took 25 years. He then collaborated with someone equally unable to predict the future: a University administrator who never acted on Goldwasser's request to patent his discovery. Sales of erythropoietin now exceed $2 billion each year.

1. In the beginning: what do our origins tell us about ourselves?

2. Homo sapiens: are we really rational creatures?

3. Integrating the physical and biological sciences: what lies ahead?

4. Money, services, or laws: how do we improve lives?

5. Clones, genes, and stem cells: can we find the path to the greatest good?

6. How will technology change the way we work and live?

7. Why do we dig up the past?

8. Art for art's sake?

9. In the realm of the senses: how do we understand what we see, hear, feel, smell, and taste?

10. Can we protect civil liberties in wartime?


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  JUNE 2002

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  > > e-Bulletin: 06/14/02



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