Physics 174: Frontiers of Biophysics
Fall Semester, 2016

Professor John Mercer    and    Professor Henry Greenside

Syllabus      Sakai      Related Links      Course Files      Schedule     


translocation of DNA through a nanopore optogenetic manipulation of neurons in a rat brain artificial oscillator created from gene dynamics
Clicking on an image will bring up a larger image.

Some representative images related to biophysics. The first image on the left shows a simulation of DNA translocating through an artificial nanopore, a physical process that suggests a rapid inexpensive way to read out a genome. The second image shows optical manipulation of particular neurons in a rat's brain by the technique of optogenetics. The third image from the left shows an artificial oscillating dynamical system constructed out of interacting genes, which provides insights about gene regulatory networks. The last image shows a kinesin molecule transporting a vesicle along a microtubule highway (from the movie Inner Life of a Cell).


Welcome to Physics 174, a one-semester half-credit undergraduate course whose goal is to introduce students to biophysics, which is a particularly exciting and interdisciplinary scientific frontier.

Many of the most interesting unsolved questions in biology and medicine—such as how did life arise and does life exist elsewhere in the universe, how do biomolecules such as enzymes or membrane channels accomplish their remarkable feats, how does a single zygote "decide" through biochemical computations to grow into a human with trillions of different kinds of cells, how does a brain process information and implement behavior, and what is the mechanism of cancer—involve intricate dynamical mechanisms and complicated structure that can often be usefully studied and understood by using ideas and techniques from physics. And conversely, many problems in biology and medicine raise interesting and novel questions for physicists and engineers, such as how does the extraordinary 500-atom-diameter flagellar motor of bacteria work, since it can spin at over 100 rotations per second, reverse instantly, and converts chemical to mechanical energy with an efficiency of over 98%.

Physics 174 focuses mainly on current frontiers of biophysics, and should be especially interesting to freshmen and sophomores who like biology and who like the quantitative style of physics. But the course should also be interesting to all Duke students who want to get a sense of what are some current hot scientific frontiers and who would like to hear some outstanding Duke and UNC researchers talk about their biophysics-related research. The guest speakers for this fall semester are:

Other parts of the course will involve student class presentations on some current biophysics topics, and a few background lectures, see the detailed course schedule.

The course assumes only a high-school knowledge of physics, chemistry, biology, and math, although the more you know about these subjects, the more you will get out of the course.