Cross-Cutting Studies on the Elemental Dynamics and Interactions in Living Systems

January 2021

Last year marked the 150th anniversary of the Periodic Table of Chemical Elements. Many attempts at understanding how life works have focused on the biology of individual elements of the periodic table. But no element works in isolation in a biological system. Instead, elemental interactions across many different scales have major influences on biology. Different disciplines approach this question in different ways with different terms but fundamentally, we need to understand these elemental interactions to understand life. In each field, reductionist approaches that look at small numbers of elements will miss the important interactions that are driving biology. A conceptual understanding of the complex relationships between elements and their effects on life would impact disciplines as diverse as structural chemistry and global biogeochemistry. In preparation for the seminar, the pedagogical framework required to facilitate cross-talk among disparate biologists will be developed. The main goal of the proposed Radcliffe exploratory seminar is to formalize hypotheses using elemental interactions at one level (e.g., cellular) and testing at other levels (e.g., ecosystems). The future research arising from these hypotheses will catalyze a synthetic understanding of biology. Beyond potentially transformative insights about scale-invariant biological processes, this work will also contribute solutions to a variety of applied problems in biology (e.g., enhancing nutrient use efficiency of crops, mitigating harmful algal blooms) in the Anthropocene characterized by striking changes in several global biogeochemical cycles. 

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