In defense of phenomenological modeling in biology: some case studies

20 February 2015

Pankaj Mehta
Department of Physics
Boston University


Phenomenological models – models that "relate empirical observations of phenomena to each other, in a way that is consistent with fundamental theory, but is not directly derived from theory" – play a fundamental role in our understanding of physical systems. These models often lack mechanistic details but can make precise, quantitative predictions about the systems being studied. In this talk, I will argue that phenomenological models can, and should, play a fundamental role in furthering our understanding of biological systems. In this vein, I will discuss recent work by our group on: (1) on using large-scale gene expression data to construct "epigenetic landscapes" for cellular identity that can identify key transcription factors for reprogramming, explain the existence of partially-reprogrammed cells, and identify a universal reaction coordinate for reprogramming dynamics and (2) using the idea of universality to construct simple, predictive, quantitative models for the biochemical networks that control collective behavior in the social amoebae Dictyostelium discoideum.

current theory lunch schedule