Bust of Max Planck

Highlights

Publication Highlights

Responsive switching between subpopulations can stabilise microbial communities

The different microbial species in complex ecological communities like the human microbiome often have different subpopulations called phenotypes, between which they can switch stochastically or in response to environmental cues, such as toxins released by competitors or antibiotics. Pierre Haas of the Max Planck Institute for the Physics of Complex Systems and the Max Planck Institute of Molecular Cell Biology and Genetics and collaborators at the University of Cambridge have analysed the ecological implications of such responsive switching. They combined a statistical analysis of many-species species, a numerical study of a minimal two-species model, and analytical results for still simpler mathematical models. While responsive switching to a rare phenotype is destabilising on average, they could show that responsive switching to a rare "attack" phenotype is stabilising on average. A similar "attack" subpopulation was recently observed experimentally, which underlines the importance of responsive switching for ecological stability.

Haas, Gutierrez, Oliveira, and Goldstein, Phys. Rev. Research 4, 033224 (2022)
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The rise to royalty; how paper wasps balance specialization and plasticity

Biological systems fascinate scientists across disciplines because of the highly complex structures that emerge from these systems, from cells to organisms and societies. While biological systems fulfil highly specialised tasks despite noisy signals, they can also rapidly break up these structures and perform entirely different tasks when the right signals are present. A new study in Cell Systems published by Adolfo Alsina and Steffen Rulands from MPI-PKS, Wolf Reik from the Babraham Institute in Cambridge and Solenn Patalano from the BBSRC Alexander Fleming in Athens used paper wasps as a paradigmatic example.
Paper wasps are social insects that display societal division of labor between workers and a queen. While this division of labor remains stable for the entire lifetime of the queen, when the queen is removed from the nest or dies the remaining workers can rapidly change their behavior and establish a new queen. Due to this behavior the paper wasps serve an experimental testing ground to study biological plasticity.
Rulands and colleagues carried out a unique set of experiments in Panama where they removed the queen from paper wasp nests and then followed the reorganization process back to the intact society simultaneously on different scales of biological organization: from time-resolved profiling of brains using multi-omics of the brains to colony-level video recordings. Using theory, they showed that by balancing antagonistic molecular and colony-level processes these societies are able to distinguish between different kinds of perturbations affecting the nest: intrinsic perturbations, such as molecular noise, affect insects independently of each other and these perturbations are actively suppressed by the society. By contrast, extrinsic perturbations affect the entire society and the society reacts plasticly. Given the above, the authors conclude that by employing a self-organised multi-scale mechanism Polistes manages to overcome the seeming paradox between specialisation and plasticity.

Patalano et al., Cell Systems 13, 1–12 (2022)
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The full spectrum of a quantum many-body system in one shot

Quantum excited states underpin new states of matter, support biological processes such as vision, and determine opto-electronic properties of photovoltaic devices. Yet, while ground-state properties can be determined by rather accurate computational methods, there remains a need for theoretical and computational developments to target excited states efficiently. Inspired by the duplication of the Hilbert space used to study black-hole entanglement and the electronic pairing of conventional superconductivity, researchers from the Max Planck Institute for the Physics of Complex Systems and their collaborators from Munich and Modena have developed a new scheme to compute the full spectrum of a quantum many-body Hamiltonian, rather than only its ground or lowest-excited states. An important feature of their proposed scheme is that these spectra can be computed in a one-shot calculation. The scheme thus provides a novel variational platform to excited-state physics. It is also suitable for efficient implementation on quantum computers, so has the potential to enable unprecedented calculations of excited-state processes of quantum many-body systems.

C. L. Benavides-Riveros et al., Phys. Rev. Lett. 129, 066401 (2022), Editors' Suggestion
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Cells sense their way together

Much like animals can trace odors, cells also move toward certain chemicals. In fact, cells often do this in groups, which can be up to millions of individuals strong. But how do these cell populations manage to move together as a cohesive unit while following chemical cues? New work by Ricard Alert of the Max Planck Institute for the Physics of Complex Systems and collaborators shows that the answer lies in limitations in the ability of cells to sense chemicals at high concentrations. Thus, the work bridges scales by connecting the sensing of tiny molecules by individual cells to the shape and motion of an entire cell population, which can be centimeters or even larger in size. The work is important because it reveals a potentially general principle: Sensing—a distinguishing feature of living systems—governs the ability of cells to migrate in groups. This principle could operate in many other examples of collective migration, as cells and other living creatures can sense and follow a variety of stimuli, such as electric fields, temperature, and light intensity. Finally, the new results open a tantalizing question for future work: Has evolution pushed the sensing limitations of cells to ensure that they can follow chemical cues as a cohesive group? (Image credit: Mariona Esquerda Ciutat.)

Ricard Alert, Alejandro Martínez-Calvo, and Sujit S. Datta Phys. Rev. Lett. 128, 148101
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Anomalous dynamics and equilibration in the classical Heisenberg chain

The search for departures from standard hydrodynamics in many-body systems has yielded a number of promising leads, especially in low dimension. Researchers at the Max Planck Institute for the Physics of Complex Systems studied one of the simplest classical interacting lattice models, the nearest-neighbour Heisenberg chain, with temperature as tuning parameter. Their numerics expose strikingly different spin dynamics between the antiferromagnet, where it is largely diffusive, and the ferromagnet, where they observe strong evidence either of spin superdiffusion or an extremely slow crossover to diffusion. At low temperatures in the ferromagnet, they observe an extremely long-lived regime of remarkably clean Kardar-Parisi-Zhang (KPZ) scaling (see figure). The anomalous behaviour also governs the equilibration after a quench, and, remarkably, is apparent even at very high temperatures.

A. J. McRoberts, T. Bilitewski, M. Haque, and R. Moessner, Phys. Rev. B 105, L100403
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Non-Markovian Quantum State Diffusion: Matrix-product-state approach to the hierarchy of pure states

An important but challenging task is to treat mesoscopic systems that are coupled to a complex environment at finite temperature. Alexander Eisfeld of the Max Planck Institute for the Physics of Complex Systems and his collaborators have derived a stochastic hierarchy of matrix product states (HOMPS) for non-Markovian dynamics, which is numerically exact and efficient. In this way the exponential complexity of the problem can be reduced to scale polynomially with the number of particles and modes of the environment. An additional feature caused by the stochastic noise is that individual trajectories stay well localized. The validity and efficiency of HOMPS is demonstrated for the spin-boson model and long chains where each site is coupled to a structured, strongly non-Markovian environment.
Xing Gao, Jiajun Ren, Alexander Eisfeld, and Zhigang Shuai, Phys. Rev. A 105, L030202
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Left-right symmetry of zebrafish embryos requires surface tension

Bilateral symmetry of the vertebrate musculoskeletal system is necessary for proper function and its defects are associated with debilitating conditions, such as scoliosis. In a collaboration with biologists from the École polytechnique fédérale de Lausanne (EPFL) in Switzerland, Marko Popović of the Max Planck Institute for Physics of Complex Systems has studied the early stage of body segmentation using zebrafish as a model organism. They discovered that biochemical signalling and transcriptional processes that drive segmentation are not sufficient to explain the precision and symmetry of tissue shapes and sizes. However, they found that surface tension forces of the newly formed segments are a crucial component of the mechanism that is responsible for recovery and maintenance of the symmetric body plan. This discovery highlights the importance of physical interactions for precise and robust development of living beings.
S. R. Naganthan, M. Popovic, and A. C. Oates, Nature 605, 516-521 (2022)
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Novel quantum phases of droplets

Attractive forces are ubiquitous in nature: they glue very different objects ranging from atomic nuclei, droplets of water, to stars, galaxies, and black holes. Peter Karpov and Francesco Piazza of the Max Planck Institute for the Physics of Complex Systems have now demonstrated that highly tuneable attractive interactions can be engineered artificially using optical cavities, leading to various novel phases of quantum droplets of ultracold atoms. Upon tuning the cavity-mediated interactions it is possible to switch between superfluid droplets and incompressible water-like droplets, as well as to realise crystalline and even more exotic supersolid droplets combining superfluid and solid properties.
P. Karpov and F. Piazza, Phys. Rev. Lett. 128, 103201 (2022)
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Molecular Assembly Lines in Active Droplets

A fundamental question in biology is how complexes of several molecules can assemble reliably. Tyler Harmon and Frank Jülicher of the Max Planck Institute for the Physics of Complex Systems have now shown that a molecular assembly line can be self-organized by active droplets where it can form spontaneously. This assembly line arranges different assembly steps spatially so that a specific order of assembly is achieved and incorrect assembly is suppressed. They have shown how assembly bands are positioned and controlled and discuss the rate and fidelity of assembly as compared to other assembly scenarios.
T. S. Harmon and F. Jülicher, Phys. Rev. Lett. 128, 108102 (2022)
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Dirac Magnons, Nodal Lines, and Nodal Plane in Elemental Gadolinium

The exploration of band topology in crystalline solids has been at the forefront of condensed matter physics for many years in efforts tying together theoretical physics, materials science and powerful spectroscopic techniques. One relatively new avenue is the exploration of band topology in the spin wave, or magnon, excitations of magnetic materials. Spin wave topology is connected to novel magnetic transport properties, little explored symmetries and surface magnetism and offers a new platform to study interactions. One of the main current directions is to find new materials with topologically interesting band structures and this new study does exactly this by establishing the existence of Dirac nodal lines and a nodal plane in the magnons of elemental gadolinium.
Gadolinium is a hexagonal closed packed magnetic metal in which, at around room temperature, the magnetic moments order into a simple ferromagnetic structure. In this new study, a team of experimentalists at Oakridge National Lab in the US together with theory collaborators explored the magnetic excitations of gadolinium in the ordered phase in unprecedented detail using inelastic neutron scattering. They found that gadolinium hosts Dirac magnons in the form of nodal lines extending along the zone corners. The existence of the nodal lines can be seen to arise from the presence of combined spin rotation and crystalline symmetries providing a first experimental example of the importance of such symmetries for band topology. In the vicinity of the nodal lines, the neutron scattering intensity can be seen to wind around the lines from strong to weak and in antiphase between the two bands (as shown in the figure). This intensity signature is a robust prediction connected to the nontrivial topology of these points. From the existence of the nodal lines one may infer the existence of magnon surface states $-$ a challenging target for future experiments.
Furthermore, the nonsymmorphic crystal symmetries together with spin rotation enforce the presence of a degenerate plane of magnon excitations. Just as the nodal lines exhibit winding of the neutron intensity in their vicinity, the nodal plane is linked to a sharp flip in the intensity on paths crossing through the plane. Both the nodal plane and the intensity jump are clearly observed in the data.

Phys. Rev. Lett. 128, 097201 (2022)
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