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Nigel D. Goldenfeld

Director, Institute for Universal Biology
Swanlund Professor of Physics, University of Illinois
Biocomplexity Theme Leader, Institute for Genomic Biology
1110 West Green
Urbana, IL  61801

Telephone: (217) 333-8027

Biographical Information

Nigel received his Ph.D. from the University of Cambridge (U.K.) in 1982, and for the years 1982-1985 was a postdoctoral fellow at the Institute for Theoretical Physics, University of California at Santa Barbara. Since 1985 he has been a member of the Condensed Matter Theory faculty in the Department of Physics at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. Nigel directs the Institute for Universal Biology and leads the Biocomplexity Theme at the Institute for Genomic Biology; he is also a member of the NSF Physics Frontier Center for the Physics of Living Cells and the Institute for Condensed Matter Theory.

Nigel is a Fellow of the American Physical Society, a Fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences and a Member of the US National Academy of Sciences. More ...


Nigel Goldenfeld's group is primarily concerned with the way in which spatial patterns evolve in time, be they snowflakes, the microstructures of materials, the turbulent flow of fluids, geological formations, or even microbial communities and ecosystems.  Such phenomena are emergent outcomes of non-equilibrium statistical mechanics, and often manifest universal scaling phenomena, reflecting generic physical principles and collective processes. 

Goldenfeld's research in astrobiology is directed at rather basic questions concerning the dynamics of evolution, beyond population genetics.  How can one model the evolution of the genetic code and answer the question of why it is essentially the same for all life on Earth, exhibiting a very high degree of error tolerance that is unlikely to have arisen by chance?  How does the evolution of core cellular machinery reflect the nature of life prior to the "last universal common ancestor"?  And how does life itself emerge and grow in complexity in an apparently unbounded way?  These and other questions can be addressed at a conceptual level that illuminates general principles of evolution, and thus should give insights into the likelihood of life elsewhere in the universe.  Goldenfeld's previous work with the late Carl Woese developed a dynamical model for how genetic codes must evolve --- here on Earth and elsewhere in the Universe --- and suggested that early life was dominated by collective processes.  This means that the evolutionary process was one in which the community varied in descent --- not individual organismal lineages as is the case today.  This collective state, referred to in earlier speculations as the "progenote", perhaps reflects one with a high level of endiosymbiosis and massive horizontal gene transfer.  One of the key objectives of the Institute for Universal Biology is to look for signatures of this earlier state of life.

Selected Publications:

  1. Nigel Goldenfeld and Leo Kadanoff. Simple Lessons from Complexity. Science 284, 87-89 (1999) (PDF).
  2. K. Vetsigian and N. Goldenfeld. Global divergence of microbial genome sequences mediated by propagating fronts. Proc. Natl. Acad. Sci. (USA)., 102, 7332–7337 (2005) (PDF).
  3. H.G. Martin and Nigel Goldenfeld. Origin of the species-area relationship in ecology. Proc. Natl. Acad. Sci. (USA) 103, 10310-10315 (2006) (PDF).
  4. K. Vetsigian, C.R. Woese and Nigel Goldenfeld. Communal evolution of the genetic code. Proc. Natl. Acad. Sci. 103, 10696-10701 (2006) (PDF).
  5. J. Veysey, T.J. Schickel, B.W. Fouke, M. Kandianis, R. Johnson and Nigel Goldenfeld. Reconstruction of Water Temperature, pH, and Flux of Ancient Hot Springs from Travertine Depositional Facies. J. Sed. Res. 78, 69-76 (2008) (PDF).
  6. N. Goldenfeld and C. Woese. Biology's next revolution. Nature 445, 369-369 (2007) (PDF).
  7. N. Guttenberg and N. Goldenfeld. Cascade of complexity in evolving predator-prey dynamics. Phys. Rev. Lett. 100, 058102:1-4 (2008) (PDF).
  8. T. Butler, N. Goldenfeld, D. Mathew and Z. Luthey-Schulten. Extreme genetic code optimality from a molecular dynamics calculation of amino acid polar requirement. Phys. Rev. E Rapid Communications 79, 060901(R):1-4 (2009). (PDF)
  9. K. Vetsigian and N. Goldenfeld. Genome rhetoric and the emergence of compositional bias. Proc. Natl. Acad. Sci. (USA) 106, 215-220 (2009). (PDF)
  10. N. Chia, C. Woese and N. Goldenfeld. A collective mechanism for phase variation in biofilms. Proc. Natl. Acad. Sci. (USA), 105, 14597-14602 (2008). (PDF)
  11. C.R. Woese and Nigel Goldenfeld. How the microbial world saved evolution from the Scylla of molecular biology and the Charybdis of the modern synthesis. Microbiology and Molecular Biology Reviews. 73, 14-21 (2009). (PDF)
  12. T. Butler and Nigel Goldenfeld. Optimality properties of a proposed precursor to the genetic code. Phys. Rev. E 80, 032901:1-4 (2009). (PDF)
  13. T. Butler and Nigel Goldenfeld. Robust ecological pattern formation induced by demographic noise. Phys. Rev. E Rapid Communications 80, 030902 (R): 1-4 (2009). (PDF)
  14. Nicholas Guttenberg and Nigel Goldenfeld. Emergence of heterogeneity and political organization in information exchange networks. Phys. Rev. E 81, 046111:1-8 (2010). (PDF)
  15. Z. Wang and Nigel Goldenfeld. Fixed points and limit cycles in the population dynamics of lysogenic viruses and their hosts. Phys. Rev. E 82, 011918:1-18 (2010). (PDF)
  16. Nigel Goldenfeld and Carl R. Woese. Life is Physics: evolution as a collective phenomenon far from equilibrium. Ann. Rev. Cond. Matt. Phys. 2, 375-399 (2011). (PDF).
  17. N. Chia and Nigel Goldenfeld. Statistical mechanics of horizontal gene transfer in evolutionary ecology. J. Stat. Phys. 142, 1287-1301 (2011). (PDF)
  18. N. Chia and Nigel Goldenfeld. Dynamics of gene duplication and transposons in microbial genomes following a sudden environmental change. Phys. Rev. E 83, 021906:1-10 (2011). (PDF)
  19. T. Butler and Nigel Goldenfeld. Fluctuation-driven Turing patterns. Phys. Rev. E 84, 011112 (12 pages) (2011). (PDF)
  20. Zhenyu Wang and Nigel Goldenfeld. Theory of cooperation in a micro-organismal snowdrift game. Phys. Rev. E. Rapid Communications, 84, 020902 (4 pages) (2011). (PDF)
  21. T.C. Butler, M. Benayoun, E. Wallace, W. van Drongelen, Nigel Goldenfeld, Jack Cowan. Evolutionary constraints on visual cortex architecture from the dynamics of hallucinations. Proc. Natl. Acad. Sci. (USA) 109, 606-609 (2012). (PDF)
  22. N.R. Pace, J. Sapp and Nigel Goldenfeld. Phylogeny and beyond: Scientific, historical and conceptual significance of the first tree of life. Proc. Natl. Acad. Sci. (USA) 109, 1011-1018 (2012). (PDF)
  23. Nigel Goldenfeld and Norman R. Pace. Carl Woese: In retrospect. Science 339, 661 (2013). (PDF)