Center for Theoretical Biological Physics

The Center for Theoretical Biological Physics (CTBP) at Rice University is one of 10 Physics Frontier Centers supported by the National Science Foundation through the Physics Division of the Directorate for Mathematical and Physical Sciences, with additional sponsorship from three NSF divisions: Molecular and Cell Biology, Chemistry, and Materials Research. The NSF established the CTBP to facilitate research and support education in biological physics, a rapidly emerging area of science that uses concepts and methodologies from biology, math, and physics to better understand the complexity of living systems.

Originally headquartered at the University of California-San Diego (UCSD), the CTBP moved to Rice in 2011 upon recruitment of biophysicists José Onuchic and Peter Wolynes and bioengineer Herbert Levine with funding from the Cancer Prevention & Research Institute of Texas (CPRIT). The Center is now located at Rice’s BioScience Research Collaborative, and while some of its research efforts are still conducted at UCSD (TMC news), it has formed additional partnerships with the Baylor College of Medicine, the University of Houston, and The University of Texas Health Science Center – Houston, all of which are close to the Rice campus.


Taking advantage of its sophisticated computational and experimental facilities, CTBP researchers work on four broadly defined areas:

  1. Fundamentals of physical genetics—Focuses on several distinct but coupled physical aspects of genetics, including stochasticity of transcription, circuit design of genetic networks, and the spatiotemporal layout of the genome.
  2. Interacting active elements and biological functionality—Investigates how cooperative interactions between motors and polymers within cells as well as cells within tissues create higher-level functional behavior.
  3. Integrated living systems—Based on the premise that biological systems are inherently hierarchical, and seeks to understand how behavior at the multicellular scale depends on the integrated activity of cells, which in turn relies on the coordinated behavior of their molecular networks.
  4. Development of Core Methodology—Develops advanced molecular techniques, a computational model of cell motility mechanics and concomitant cell shape changes, and a landscape-based approach to complex genetic circuits, all to be freely shared with the research community. NSF, National Institutes of Health (NIH), and CPRIT are the major agencies supporting CTBP research.

Education and Outreach

Besides research, the CTBP is committed to education and outreach. The Center offers many research opportunities to postdoctoral fellows and graduate and undergraduate students. These Opportunities for Research in Biophysics, Informatics and Theoretical Science (ORBITS), encourage using both theoretical and experimental physics to further the understanding of biology and its application to biomedicine.

In addition, the CTBP is the lead institute for Physics of Living Systems, a novel network community where graduate students can help each other navigate the difficulties in dealing with research in biological physics, an inherently multi-disciplinary field that is still relatively new in many institutions.

For outreach, the CTBP partners with the University of Houston and the Houston Community College to establish programs to enable undergraduates from under-represented minorities to experience cutting-edge research, thereby encouraging them to consider attending graduate school in a STEM field.


Last updated:

December 2018.