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Medical/Biological Physics

Physicists at Penn and elsewhere have recently turned increasing attention to the intricate and beautiful physics of biological systems. An explosion of new experimental techniques that probe and manipulate complex biological materials at the molecular level have allowed quantitative measurements of properties that were previously but the subject of speculation. Researchers at Pennís Condensed Matter Group are particularly interested in measuring the fascinating physical properties of biological systems and biologically important molecules (for example, DNA).

Penn scientists also exploit modern methods of molecular biology to create entirely new classes of biologically-inspired materials that combine the wide variety of mechanical, electrochemical, and catalytic function of natural proteins with a robustness and simplicity uncharacteristic of life.

There is a cultural gap between physics, which seeks to understand extremely simple systems, and biology, which is obliged to study the overall behavior of extremely complex systems. One area where simplicity and life intersect is the study of biomembranes, both in isolation and as active elements of cells. In recent years amazing new experimental techniques, including optical tweezers, have opened up the study of both the equilibrium conformations and dynamic response of membranes to quantitative analysis. Similarly the DNA molecule, while architecturally complex, has remarkably simple elastic behavior governed by just a few parameters. At Penn we currently have groups developing the theory of lipid bilayers, the physics of single DNA molecules, as well as the structure of condensed DNA in vitro and in vivo.

Another area is that of protein structure. Penn's NSF-funded Laboratory for Research on the Structure of Matter (LRSM) has made a major commitment to develop a set of synthetic peptides created in Penn's department of Biophysics and Biochemistry. Researchers in the Condensed Matter Group use scanned probe techniques to measure the local electrical and structural properties of self-assembled monolayers of these molecules. Their results feed back into investigations into the optical properties of these materials, and how the molecules can be engineered to create a new class of designer biomaterials. This research is a collaboration between scientists in Biophysics and Biochemistry, Chemistry, and Physics and Astronomy.

For more information on the Laboratory for Research on the Structure of Matter, please visit http://www.lrsm.upenn.edu/

For more information on Penn's Condensed Matter Group, please visit http://www.physics.upenn.edu/softphysics/

Biological Engineering Network at the University of Pennsylvania
1010 Vagelos Research Labs / 3340 Smith Walk / Philadelphia PA 19104-6383
tel. 215-573-6813 ~ fax. 215-573-6815 ~ e-mail: ben-penn@pobox.upenn.edu