SURF 2013: The connection between biological structure and function in dynamic environments

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2013 SURF project description

  • Mentor: Richard Murray
  • Co-mentor: Chris Kempes

The connection between biological structure and function is one of the oldest interests in science. Recently there has been renewed interest in focusing on biological structure as a central property of organisms. We are offering two potential SURF projects focusing on biological structure as it relates to either 1.) organized communities of bacteria or 2.) the structure of forest ecosystems and the Earth’s climate.

1.) Recently it has been shown that communities of bacteria that group together increase their overall chances of survival [1]. These communities can often produce remarkably complex structures composed of billions of cells. In this project we will investigate the cellular behaviors responsible for these structures through simulations and comparisons with existing empirical data.

2.) Recently we have produced a model which connects generalized tree structure with local resources and simple physical principles to successfully predict maximum tree height across the United States [2]. This SURF project will expand our model to predict many forest features, such as the total leaf cover, and to link our simulation with the Earth’s climate system to test the feedback that vegetation has on climate change.


  1. Xavier, Joao B., and Kevin R. Foster. "Cooperation and conflict in microbial biofilms." Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences 104.3 (2007): 876-881.
  2. Kempes, Christopher P., et al. "Predicting maximum tree heights and other traits from allometric scaling and resource limitations." PLoS One 6.6 (2011): e20551.