Are Biological Systems Poised at Criticality?

Thierry Mora, William Bialek

Research output: Contribution to journalReview articlepeer-review

500 Scopus citations


Many of life's most fascinating phenomena emerge from interactions among many elements-many amino acids determine the structure of a single protein, many genes determine the fate of a cell, many neurons are involved in shaping our thoughts and memories. Physicists have long hoped that these collective behaviors could be described using the ideas and methods of statistical mechanics. In the past few years, new, larger scale experiments have made it possible to construct statistical mechanics models of biological systems directly from real data. We review the surprising successes of this "inverse" approach, using examples from families of proteins, networks of neurons, and flocks of birds. Remarkably, in all these cases the models that emerge from the data are poised near a very special point in their parameter space-a critical point. This suggests there may be some deeper theoretical principle behind the behavior of these diverse systems.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)268-302
Number of pages35
JournalJournal of Statistical Physics
Issue number2
StatePublished - Jul 2011

All Science Journal Classification (ASJC) codes

  • Statistical and Nonlinear Physics
  • Mathematical Physics


  • Biological networks
  • Collective behavior
  • Critical point
  • Maximum entropy model
  • Proteins


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