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Physicist examines game theory on microbial level as part of UH Tenneco lecture series

Studying the microscopic world of bacteria, professor Jos Onuchic determined that bacteria colonies rely on principles of game theory to make complex calculations under difficult conditions. Onuchic, the co-director of the Center for Theoretical Biological Physics at the University of California, San Diego, will present "How Bacteria Decide Their Fate in Adverse Times" as part of the 2010 Tenneco Distinguished Lecturer Series at the University of Houston.

The free, public event takes place at 5:30 p.m., Monday, Nov. 1 in the Shamrock Room at the Hilton University of Houston. The UH College of Liberal Arts and Social Sciences, the department of history, the Texas Center for Superconductivity (TcSUH) and the department of physics welcome Onuchic to the Tenneco Lecture Series.

"Dr. Onuchic will detail his research in exploring game theory on the smallest scale," said UH physics professor Margaret Cheung. "We're honored to host him."

Researchers rely on game theory to mathematically capture behavior in strategic situations in which the final outcome is determined through the actions of several subjects. The theory was developed to analyze competitions in which one subject benefits at another's expense.

"We have shown how the bacteria do this complex calculation according to well-defined principles," Onuchic explained. "We learned a simple rule: Anyone who needs to make a decision under pressure in life, especially if it is a possible death decision, will take its time. She or he will review the trends of change, will render all possible chances and risks, and only then react."

A member of the National Academy of Sciences, Onuchic's current research interests center on theoretical and computational methods for molecular biophysics and chemical reactions in condensed matter.

Previous research demonstrated that bacteria live in large colonies that may reach up to 100 times the number of people on Earth. Onuchic's latest research shows how, under adverse conditions, the bacteria in a colony communicate via chemical messages and perform a sophisticated decision-making process by using a specialized network of genes and proteins. This complex network enables the bacteria to perform complex calculations in order to assess the pros and cons of the different choices guided by the new principles of game theory.

Inaugurated in 1986, the Tenneco Lecture Series provides an opportunity for Houston professionals, community leaders and others to consider historical and social perspectives directly related to the decisions they make. The series is made possible by grants from Tenneco Inc. and the National Endowment for the Humanities.

WHO: Jos N. Onuchic, professor of physics
WHAT: Tenneco Lecture Series, "How Bacteria Decide Their Fate in Adverse Times"
WHEN: 5:30 p.m., Monday, Nov. 1
WHERE: Hilton University of Houston, Shamrock Ballroom


Contact: Travis Coggin
University of Houston

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Physicist examines game theory on microbial level as part of UH Tenneco lecture series
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