Expert Report

Each report is produced by a committee of experts selected by the Academy to address a particular statement of task and is subject to a rigorous, independent peer review; while the reports represent views of the committee, they also are endorsed by the Academy. Learn more on our expert consensus reports.

An increasing number of scientists are addressing problems that lie at the intersection of the life sciences and the physical sciences. This report discusses how some of the most important scientific and societal challenges can be addressed, at least in part, by collaborative research among traditional disciplines, including biology, chemistry, and physics. It describes how tools and techniques developed in the physical sciences are being applied to current biological mysteries and identifies five areas of potentially transformative research. Combining the skills and knowledge of researchers in life sciences and physical sciences to identify structures and processes that form the basis for living systems represents one such opportunity. Scientists could potentially use that insight to construct systems with some characteristics of life. Such systems could, for example, synthesize materials or carry out functions not yet seen in natural biology. The report recommends several ways to accelerate such cross-discipline research.

Key Messages

  • Most often, collaborative research among the physical and life sciences applies concepts, analyses, and tools developed in the physical sciences to problems in the biological sciences.
  • One area producing effective cross-discipline research opportunities centers on the dynamics of systems. Equilibrium, multistability, and stochastic behavior--concepts familiar to physicists and chemists--are now being used to tackle issues associated with living systems such as adaptation, feedback, and emergent behavior.
  • Technologies, from the physical sciences, for recognizing symptoms and identifying pathogen strains allow early detection and intervention against natural -- and man-made -- biological threats. Using techniques related to speech recognition, mathematicians have worked to map the genetic similarity of influenza viruses. Using color and spatial distribution, subtle evolved differences in virus strains can be identified, and decisions about the potential effectiveness of vaccines become easier.
  • The potential benefits for society from research that integrates the physical and biological sciences are profound -- in medicine, agriculture, energy, and climate science.
  • The scientific and societal challenge of understanding the role of physical/biological interactions in climate change is at least as profound in the area of solutions as it is in impacts. Essentially all possible approaches for offsetting emissions of greenhouse gases, including biological sequestration, decreased deforestation, and geological and deep ocean sequestration, involve changes to biological systems.
  • There is no reason, in principle, why self-reproducing, evolving systems cannot be generated in a wide range of chemical formats. Using the knowledge from the physical sciences, we face the ambitious possibility of generating synthetic units with basic attributes of living matter such as compartmentalization, metabolism, homeostasis, replication, and the capacity for Darwinian evolution. Such self-replicating, evolving organisms have the potential to create more efficient functions for a broad range of applications.