Title: Breaking the Standard Model (of Embryonic Development)
Abstract: Over the last few decades, we have witnessed a revolution in the study of living matter. However, we have yet to reach a predictive understanding of such matter that is on par with the successes seen in physics for inanimate matter. In this talk, I will show how we take on the challenge of predictively understanding of living matter in the important context of cellular decision making. Specifically, we aim to predict how the information stored in the DNA of cells within a developing animal embryo dictates how these cells will adopt different fates and become familiar cell types such as those found in muscle, liver and our brains. Using the fruit fly, arguably the hydrogen atom of embryonic development, as a case study, I will introduce theoretical models rooted in equilibrium statistical mechanics that make polarizing predictions about the number, position and timing of the emergence of the body parts that make up the animal. I will then show how new technologies we have pioneered for precisely quantifying how individual cells adopt their fates within a living, developing embryo cast doubt on this standard model of embryonic development. Instead, our experiments call for the adoption of models drawn from the frontiers of non-equilibrium statistical physics that account for the energy consuming processes inside the cell, motivating a new and exciting iteration of the theory-experiment dialogue.