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Nature is full of parasites—organisms that flourish and proliferate at the expense of another species. Surprisingly, these same competing roles of parasite and host can be found in the microscopic molecular world of the cell. A new study by two Illinois researchers has demonstrated that dynamic elements within the human genome interact with each other in a way that strongly resembles the patterns seen in populations of predators and prey.

The findings, published in Physical Review Letters by physicists Chi Xue and Nigel Goldenfeld, (DOI: 10.1103/PhysRevLett.117.208101) are an important step toward understanding the complex ways that genomes change over the lifetime of individual organisms, and how they evolve over generations.

  • In Memoriam

Klaus Schulten, professor of physics and Beckman Institute faculty member for nearly 25 years, passed away after an illness in late October, 2016. In this memorial tribute, Schulten discusses his research and his love of exploring how nature works.

Schulten, who led Beckman’s Theoretical and Computational Biophysics Group, was a leader in the field of biophysics, conducting seminal work in the area of dynamic computer simulations, illuminating biological processes and structures in ways that weren’t possible before.

Schulten’s goal from his start as an original Beckman researcher was to use mathematics and physics to study the natural world through advanced computation.

Schulten’s group has created simulations that have provided never-before-seen views of such function as the chemical structure of the HIV capsid and the first-ever simulation of an entire life form, the complete satellite tobacco mosaic virus.

  • In the News
  • Condensed Matter Physics

The other half of the Nobel prize, awarded for “topological phase transitions,” also unites topology and physics, but “topology enters in a somewhat different way,” says Eduardo Fradkin, a physicist at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign. 

Relevant here is the fact that topological properties often cannot be determined locally. An ant sitting on a pastry can’t tell by looking around whether the perch is a bun, bagel, or pretzel.

  • Research

Do sterile neutrinos—hypothetical particles that do not interact with matter except through gravity—really exist? If so, this would solve some of today’s major mysteries in particle physics and cosmology. For two decades, researchers around the globe have sought evidence that would prove or disprove the reality of sterile neutrinos, with inconclusive outcomes.

Now, a new result has all but ruled out the possible existence of a light sterile neutrino in a regime suggested by an earlier experiment. Researchers from two major international collaborations—the Main Injector Neutrinos Oscillation Search (MINOS) at Fermi National Laboratory and the Daya Bay Reactor Neutrino Experiment in the south of China—joined forces, each contributing years of data that, taken together, paint a nearly complete picture. The joint result published in Physical Review Letters has significantly shrunk the hiding space for a light sterile neutrino.

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