Robert B. Phillips

Fred and Nancy Morris Professor of Biophysics, Biology, and Physics

B.S., University of Minnesota, 1986; Ph.D., Washington University, 1989. Clark Millikan Visiting Assistant Professor, Caltech, 1997; Professor, 2000-2011; Morris Professor, 2012-.

Research Interests

Physical Biology of the Cell; Biophysical Theory; Single-molecule Experiments; Single-cell Experiments

Physical Biology of the Cell

Our work focuses on three primary areas which serve as case studies in the physical dissection of biological problems.

First, we have had a long standing interest in how viruses transfer their genetic material to their infected hosts.  On the theoretical side, we have explored the free energy cost of DNA packing within viruses and how that stored energy can be used to power genome transfer.  These efforts are complemented by single-molecule studies in which we watch individual viruses deliver their genomes in real time.  These experiments reveal a rich interplay between the free energy which drives ejection and the friction that the DNA encounters as it enters the infected host.

Second, we have been fascinated by the interplay between the informational and physical characteristics of DNA which has led to efforts on single-molecule and single-cell studies of how transcription factors interact with, deform and loop DNA.  These single-molecule approaches are coupled with statistical mechanical modeling which permit the determination of the nature of the DNA-protein interactions that mediate many genomic transactions. Until recently, our efforts have primarily focused on bacterial transcription, but of late we have generalized these efforts to V(D)J recombination as a signature eukaryotic example of the interplay between information and physical processes on DNA.

Third, cells are subjected to forces of all kinds.  One of the most severe mechanical perturbations that cells can suffer is osmotic shock.  Our interest in these systems began with theoretical calculations of how mechanosensitive channels in bacteria work.  Insights from these models have led us to undertake single-cell osmotic shock experiments in which we watch the response of cells harboring various combinations of mechanosensitive channels to osmotic shock.

Our efforts in this area culminated in the recent publication of a book entitled Physical Biology of the Cell published by Garland Press.

 

Selected Awards

KITP Simons Distinguished Visiting Scholar, 2015 Makris Memorial Lecturer, University of Pennsylvania, 2015 Resnick Lecturer, Johns Hopkins University, 2014 Book of the Year Award for Physical Biology of the Cell - Society of Biologists, 2013 Co-Director, Physiology Course, Marine Biological Laboratory, 2014- Burroughs-Wellcome CASI Award Selection Committee Chair, 2013- KAVLI Institute Theoretical Physics-Advisory Board, 2013-2015 Fred and Nancy Morris Professor of Biophysics and Biology, 2012- EU International Distinguished Scientist, 2012 Member, Institute of Theoretical Physics, 1997, 2006, 2012, 2015 Ehrenfest Colloquium, Leiden, 2010 35th Annual Award for Excellence in Teaching, ASCIT, 2010-2011 Pierre Gilles de Gennes Fellowship, Paris, France, 2010-2012 Course Director, Physical Biology, Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory, 2010- APS Fellow, 2009 Southwest Mechanics Lecturer, 2009 Lead Instructor, Physiology Course, Marine Biology Laboratory, 2006- Editorial Board Annual Reviews of Biophysics, 2006-2012 NIH Director’s Pioneer Award, 2004-2009 Midwest Mechanics Lecturer, 2002-2003 Member, Isaac Newton Institute for Mathematical Sciences, 1999 First Chaired Manning Assistant Professor, Brown University NSF CAREER Award Washington University Dissertation Fellow, 1988-89 Washington University Fellow, 1986-1988

Publications