Finding a lingua franca for biological mechanism and modeling​

Different jargon, definitions, and even overall research philosophy among scientific subdisciplines can cause confusion. Our inability to communicate effectively caused by these differences is a barrier to making new discoveries and translating them into benefits for society. This case study highlights how expressing mechanistic understanding in mathematical terms can drive a scientific advance

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The paper in Nature Ecology & Evolution is here:

Two scientists walk into a bar… One tells a joke. The other one looks blank in response. Scientists don't lack a sense of humor. Instead, this scenario could easily happen because within each discipline and sub-discipline we communicate in ways that are hard for others to understand. This paper is a case study of how advances can be made by breaking down one of the classic communication barriers – the barrier between understanding biology and expressing it as math. Two undergraduates – Kevin Wolz, a double major in integrative biology and engineering, and Mark Abordo, a math major – did most of the work. 

Bringing two disciplines - field ecology and mathematical modeling - together in one scientist. Kevin Wolz is the lead author of this study, which is based on his senior undergraduate research thesis while a double major in Integrative Biology/Civil and Environmental Engineering at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. (Photo Credit: Brian Stauffer, UIUC)

Mathematical models can be used to simulate how plants photosynthesize and simultaneously lose water from their leaves to the atmosphere. This is practically important for efforts to forecast crop productivity, or the sustainability of land use strategies, or the influence of biogeochemical cycling on the trajectory of future climate change. Stomata are the pores on the leaf surface of all land plants, which open and close to regulate how easily water is lost from the leaf and how easily carbon dioxide can enter the leaf to be captured by photosynthesis. This trade-off between photosynthetic carbon gain and water loss is arguably the most important factor influencing the health and success of plant life on land. The guard cells – that regulate the opening and closing of the pores – are exquisitely regulated in response to changes in environmental conditions such as atmospheric humidity or carbon dioxide concentration, as well as photosynthetic activity. For the last 30 years, most models have assumed that all stomata open and close with the same degree of sensitivity. But, if you took a poll of plant physiologists 100% of them would respond that there isn't a universal playbook for stomatal behaviour and variation occurs across many axes of biological variation. The key factor is one of translation. The knowledge of biological variation in how stomata perform had generally not been expressed in terms of variation in model parameters. Consequently, the modeling community could not apply the physiologists' knowledge to their work. Our paper describes interspecific variation in stomatal conductance model parameters for 15 tree species. And, by incorporating parameter variation, demonstrated that errors in model predictions of leaf photosynthetic carbon dioxide and water fluxes could be reduced by up to 60%. So - breaking communication barriers can allow two undergraduates to make a significant conceptual advance in a senior thesis project. That might be the definition of low-hanging fruit for a research program. The bigger lessons are that expressing biological knowledge in mathematical terms helps communication among diverse scientists, and the undergraduate stage is a great time to train scientists to become “multilingual”.

Have you heard the one about the stomata who went on and on about how fast he could open and close? He was such a pore...

The paper in Nature Ecology & Evolution is here:

Andrew Leakey

Associate Prof, Dept Plant Biol, Inst for Genomic Biology, Uni of Illinois Urbana-Champaign. Projects: @arpaeWEST @amaizingO3 @foxymillet @rootsinthefield