objects interact have been found useful to scientists attempting to answer questions about the interplay of biological matter at many different levels.
Another area finding fertile ground and producing fruitful cross-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 involved in living systems such as adaptation, feedback, and emergent behavior. Ideas of pattern formation that are at the heart of condensed matter physics now help us to understand biological self-assembly and the development of biological systems.
This report also discusses how some of the mysteries of the biological world have been unraveled using tools and techniques developed in the physical sciences. These tools include not only imaging devices, both photon- and matter-based, but also computational models and algorithms. While many of them are used interchangeably by the two fields, others must be modified. However, to reach the heart of biological systems, even more sophisticated investigatory technologies and tools will be needed, many of which have not even been imagined much less developed.
In preparing this report, the committee was mindful of the vastness of the number of topics that arguably comes within the ambit of this report’s subject matter. Work taking place at the intersections of engineering and the life sciences and of materials development and the life sciences covers but two of such topics. Both are fascinating examples of where the meshing of different cultures and sets of ideas can produce much fruitful discussion and advancement.1 However, the statement of task for this committee focuses on research, limiting this report to more basic activities than those typically involved in engineering and materials development. Further, the committee acknowledges that the research that is the subject matter of this report both arises from and depends upon the rich, ongoing efforts taking place within the core disciplines of the physical and life sciences. Such intersectional research serves to supplement rather than to supplant the scientific advances being made in the more traditional fields.
Some of the most fundamental challenges in this area and near-term prospects for successfully meeting them are discussed in the form of five Grand Challenges:
Some have been covered in other NRC reports. See, for example, Inspired by Biology: From Molecules to Materials to Machines, Washington, D.C.: The National Academies Press (2008) and A New Biology for the 21st Century, Washington, D.C.: The National Academies Press (2009). Others might be the focus of future reports.