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Physics and the molecular revolution in plant biology: union needed for managing the future

Department of Biology, Technical University of Darmstadt, Schnittspahnstr. 3-5, 64287 Darmstadt, Germany


The question was asked if there is still a prominent role of biophysics in plant biology in an age when molecular biology appears to be dominating. Mathematical formation of theory is essential in systems biology, and mathematics is more inherent in biophysics than in molecular biology. A survey is made identifying and briefly characterizing fields of plant biology where approaches of biophysics remain essential. In transport at membranes electrophysiology and thermodynamics are biophysical topics. Water is a special molecule. Its transport follows the physical laws of osmosis and gradients of water potential on the background of physics of hydraulic architecture. Photobiology needs understanding of the physics of electro-magnetic radiation of quantitative nature in photosynthesis and of qualitative nature in perception by the photo-sensors cryptochromes, phototropins and phytochrome in environmental responses and development. Biophysical oscillators can play a role in biological timing by the circadian clock. Integration in the self-organization of modules, such as roots, stems and leaves, for the emergence of whole plants as unitary organisms needs storage and transport of information where physical modes of signaling are essential with cross talks between electrical and hydraulic signals and with chemical signals. Examples are gravitropism and root-shoot interactions in water relations. All of these facets of plant biophysics overlie plant molecular biology and exchange with it. It is advocated that a union of approaches of plant molecular biology and biophysics needs to be cultivated. In many cases it is already operative. In bionics biophysics is producing output for practical applications linking biology with technology. Biomimetic engineering intrinsically uses physical approaches. An extreme biophysical perspective is looking out for life in space. Sustained and increased practice of biophysics with teaching and research deserves strong encouragement
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