eLife Latest: One year of the Physics of Living Systems

Approaches from the physical sciences are having an impact in biology.
Inside eLife
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In March 2018 we announced the launch of Physics of Living Systems, a new subject area for eLife. The section was introduced to reflect the growing use of tools and methods from the physical sciences to shed light on biological systems and processes, and the increasing levels of collaboration we were seeing between physicists and life scientists.

Having assembled a group of specialist editors in this field, the new section had the following aims and scope: "to publish studies in which experimental, theoretical, and computational approaches, rooted in the physical sciences, are developed and/or applied to provide deep insights into the collective properties and function of multicomponent biological systems and processes". Authors were also encouraged to submit "descriptions of methods that could enable the interrogation of classes of biological systems in new ways, as well as interdisciplinary studies that bring together scientists and approaches from the physical and life sciences."

Answering different questions

To mark the launch, eLife Senior Editor Arup Chakraborty (MIT) hosted a webinar with three scientists who discussed different aspects of research into the physics of living systems. "The question we ask ourselves as physicists is: 'How do living organisms work?', with an emphasis on the 'do' and the 'work'", said Chakraborty.

Boris Shraiman (UCSB) explained that research into the physics of living systems was part of a larger endeavor called quantitative biology, while Eric Siggia (Rockefeller) outlined some unanswered questions in evolution, development and the immune system that might benefit from input from the physical sciences.

The benefits of approaching problems from more than one direction were discussed by eLife Reviewing Editor Aleksandra Walczak (ENS Paris): "When a biologist and someone trained in the physical sciences look at a problem, they often ask somewhat different questions," she said. "And when there is synergy and complementarity between these questions, much progress can accrue."

  1. Watch the recording

A diverse selection of research

Having opened the call for submissions in March, we have since published 25 research articles, with topics ranging from DNA supercoils to proneural waves in the optic lobe of flies. These joined 46 research articles on the physics of living systems that were published in eLife before the launch of the new section.

The articles include:

Theoretical tool bridging cell polarities with development of robust morphologies
Silas Boye Nissen et al.
This article detailed the development of a mathematical model showing that two types of cellular asymmetry, or ‘polarity’, govern the shaping of cells into sheets and tubes during development.

‘Dynamic density shaping of photokinetic E. coli
Giacomo Frangipane et al.
Researchers demonstrated the ability to dynamically arrange large collections of E. coli bacteria into complex two-dimensional density patterns using light illumination in a digital projector.

Biophysical properties of single rotavirus particles account for the functions of protein shells in a multilayered virus
Manuel Jiménez-Zaragoza et al.
The authors used atomic force microscopy to look into the physical properties of the layers of the rotavirus and how protein shells work together during the virus replication cycle.

Protein gradients on the nucleoid position the carbon-fixing organelles of cyanobacteria
Joshua S MacCready et al.
Researchers showed how the structures responsible for photosynthesis in bacteria use the nucleoid and two unique proteins as a scaffold to position themselves at equal distances along the cell.

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The research articles we’ve published are complemented by other content, including a Point of View article by eLife Reviewing Editor Raymond Goldstein (Cambridge) that asks: Are theoretical results 'Results'?. This article has been viewed more than 18,000 times (and the answer to Goldstein's question is "Yes").

Transparency in peer review

Having chosen to publish their research with eLife, authors have enjoyed our collaborative approach to peer review and the wide audience that have read and shared their results. "We have had a very constructive feedback from all three referees,” said Ala Trusina (University of Copenhagen), co-corresponding author of ‘Theoretical tool bridging cell polarities with development of robust morphologies’. “With eLife I particularly enjoy the push towards transparency: I am a strong advocate for publishing both referee comments and authors replies – it helps better science on both sides. Also it was very stimulating to experience genuinely interested and engaged editors."

This sentiment was echoed by Roberto Di Leonardo (Università di Roma "Sapienza"), corresponding author of ‘Dynamic density shaping of photokinetic E. coli’ who said, “by receiving a single coherent and concise report, we were guided towards an effective and rapid revision process. Publishing in eLife also expanded the impact of our research; we were especially pleased to reach a wider audience thanks to a very active press office." Their article was covered in media outlets such as Smithsonian magazine, IFLScience, La Repubblica and more.

What makes eLife different

At eLife, our goal is to make peer review constructive and collaborative, and to avoid unnecessary rounds of revision. All editorial decisions are taken by editors who are working scientists. Initial decisions are delivered quickly and revision requests are consolidated following an open, internal consultation among reviewers. To help increase the accessibility of research and ensure that it is communicated as rapidly as possible, authors are encouraged to make use of preprint servers, such as arXiv and bioRxiv.

“The launch of Physics of Living Systems at eLife opened new horizons for those physicists who aim to reach a wide audience that includes biologists,” said Patricia Bassereau, eLife Reviewing Editor (Institut Curie). “eLife considers experimental, simulation or theoretical physics work about living systems at all scales, from supramolecular and single cells to multicellular and organisms, as well as complex systems and pathways. As an editor, I value the collegial discussions with reviewers that are part of the peer review at eLife. They mean all authors can receive constructive feedback that will improve their papers. I believe that this and the consolidated decision letter with a single, limited list of recommendations for revisions help make eLife a great place for authors to submit their best work.”

Visit our Physics of Living Systems section to browse the latest research published in this area. Interested in submitting your next paper? Find out more by visiting our author guide.

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