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Welcome to the Levin lab: investigating information storage and processing in biological systems

We work on novel ways to understand and control complex pattern formation. We use techniques of molecular genetics, biophysics, and computational modeling to address large-scale control of growth and form. We work in whole frogs and flatworms, and sometimes zebrafish and human tissues in culture. Our projects span regeneration, embryogenesis, cancer, and learning plasticity – all examples of how cellular networks process information. In all of these efforts, our goal is not only to understand the molecular mechanisms necessary for morphogenesis, but also to uncover and exploit the cooperative signaling dynamics that enable complex bodies to build and remodel themselves toward a correct structure. Our major goal is to understand how individual cell behaviors are orchestrated towards appropriate large-scale outcomes despite unpredictable environmental perturbations. Some general themes that run through our diverse research together include:

  1. We study bioelectrical signals that make up part of the language by which cells communicate to serve the patterning needs of the host organism. These natural voltage gradients exist in all cells (not just neurons), and regulate cell behavior and gene expression. We have developed new molecular tools to track and manipulate these biophysical conversations between cells and tissues in vivo. The results have yielded important findings about basic patterning, as well as new strategies to induce regenerative repair and reprogram tissues into new organs.
  2. We have projects in development, regeneration, and cancer, as well as in the plasticity of the brain and its connection to somatic tissues. These fields are treated as distinct by most labs, funding bodies, and educational programs, but we span them because we are seeking the most fundamental aspects of biological regulation, and we hypothesize that common rules of information processing might be discovered throughout these aspects of biology. While our work will eventually give rise to practical applications in bioengineering and biomedicine, we are fundamentally interested in synthetic biology and artificial life - the understanding of living systems as cohesive, computational entities that store and process information about their shape and their environment.
  3. We complement reductive analysis of molecular components with a synthesis designed to understand top-down controls and large-scale properties. For example, we analyze morphogenetic systems as primitive cognitive agents that manipulate information about their shape and make decisions about pattern regulation. We use techniques of artificial intelligence and neuroscience to find out what information biologitcal tissues have, and how it is stored, processed, and communicated. Our focus on algorithmic (constructivist) computer models of patterning is an important component of linking genetic networks to complex 3-dimensional shape and its regulation in vivo.

Learn more about new directions in our thinking >

Photo credit: Image is modified after "The Neurologist" by Jose Perez