Meet CCSS Board member Florian Berger

One of the CCSS Board members is Florian Berger, assistant professor and principal investigator of the research group for theoretical biophysics at Utrecht University. His research revolves around mapping and understanding the dazzling complexity of cell biology.

Dr. Florian Berger
Dr. Florian Berger

Even though we don’t notice it ourselves, each and every cell in our body houses very complex processes on a molecular level. Interactions between cells increase this dazzling complexity even further on a tissue level. In order to map and understand intracellular dynamics, Florian Berger’s team implements and develops theoretical concepts from complexity research. Their insights also catalyze new avenues of research in physics, experimental biology and other scientific areas.

Why do we need complexity research to understand cell biology?

Suppose we would know all molecules in a cell and their interactions. Could we then predict a cell’s biological function, its responses to external stimuli, and its fate? No, we are still decades away from answering this question in general.

Spectacular progress has been made in explaining how molecules can self-organize into larger intracellular structures that carry out specific functions

However, in the last years, we made spectacular progress in explaining for some special systems how molecules self-organize into larger intracellular structures that carry out specific functions. Those functions, either on a cellular or organ scale, are so-called emergent phenomena: a collective behavior or property that the constituent parts don’t have, but arises because of their interactions. Such emergence is a key principle of complexity research, and we can now apply theoretical concepts from complexity research to systematically connect molecular behavior to emergent biological function.

How do you incorporate complexity in your research?

We investigate how cells maintain, regulate, and change their internal molecular structure in space and time to carry out specific tasks. In particular, we focus on the ‘skeleton’ and cargo transport within cells, as well as on specialized cells in the inner-ear that are responsible for the sensation of sound. For example, the skeletons of T cells of our immune system undergo a rapid internal rearrangement when they attack pathogens.

To describe these complex and rapid dynamics, we use large-scale agent-based stochastic computer simulations.

To describe these complex and rapid dynamics, we use large-scale agent-based stochastic computer simulations. In close collaboration with experimentalists, we are then able to systematically conceptualize the emergent behavior and characterize the consequences of molecular manipulations by mutations of involved proteins.

In what way do you collaborate with other research groups

As a theoretical group, we have an exceptional position in the Cell Biology, Neurobiology and Biophysics division of Utrecht University’s Biology department. There, we are exposed to fascinating experimental data of dynamic processes in living cells, which we aim to integrate into mathematical descriptions. In return, our quantitative descriptions provide consistent frameworks for our colleagues to interpret their data and design new experiments.

We also foster connections to theoretical physics to identify where physical concepts need to be extended to describe living systems. This happens, for example, in the field of non-equilibrium stochastic thermodynamics.

What are you looking forward to the most as a board member of the CCSS?

As a board member of the CCSS, I am privileged to learn from all the talented young and senior researchers with different backgrounds about their fascinating research.

CCSS is truly a unique place to foster interdisciplinary research

CCSS provides a remarkable infrastructure, informative seminars, and a relaxed atmosphere to quickly pick up innovative topics and methods from complexity research, mathematics, computer science, and physics. It is truly a unique place to foster interdisciplinary research, and I am looking forward to expanding its community to the life sciences.