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Experimental and Theoretical Studies of Non-Equilibrium Systems: Motor-Microtubule Assemblies and the Human-Earth System


Banks, Rachel A. (2022) Experimental and Theoretical Studies of Non-Equilibrium Systems: Motor-Microtubule Assemblies and the Human-Earth System. Dissertation (Ph.D.), California Institute of Technology. doi:10.7907/5ee6-j454.


Systems out of equilibrium are pervasive around us. In fact, being out of equilibrium is a key property of life, as described by Erwin Schrodinger in his series of essays "What is life?". Through the consumption of energy, i.e. food, living organisms achieve ordered states that would be very unlikely to occur at equilibrium, such as the mitotic spindle during cell division, swarms of bacteria, or flocks of starlings. The Earth system is another example of a non-equilibrium system. The state of the Earth has been evolving for billions of years, often under the influence of life. Today, humanity is a dominant influence forcing the Earth system to new states. Understanding these non-equilibrium systems has posed many challenges; in this thesis, we work towards quantitatively dissecting and gaining an intuition for the functioning of both a molecular scale and planetary scale non-equilibrium system.

Underlying many cellular functions such as cell division and transportation of organelles is the cytoskeleton composed of motor proteins and their constituent filaments. One of the key components are kinesin motors, which consume chemical energy to walk along and reorganize microtubules. Collections of these motors and microtubules are able to form organized structures. Understanding how these structures are formed has remained an open question. In Chapter 2, we develop a system of kinesin motors and microtubules wherein motor activity is controlled by light, thereby gaining spatiotemporal control over the formation of motor-microtubule assemblies. We demonstrate the creation of a variety of structures of different sizes and geometry, and measure how length and time scales of these assemblies depend on the activated region.

A remaining question was how the microscopic details of the interaction between motors and microtubule affect the dynamics and steady-state structure formed. With our scheme for light-control in hand, we extended the system to a variety of motor proteins that have different speeds, processivities (how many steps they take before unbinding from the microtubule), directionalities (which end of the microtubule they walk towards), and forces they are able to exert in Chapter 3. We found that the size of steady-state structures, distribution of motors within assemblies, and rate of contraction of networks depend on motor properties. Further, we demonstrate that various structures can be formed by combining different motors. This work begins to build a connection between the detailed microscopic interactions of cytoskeletal components to the larger scale structures they form.

Chapter 4 begins our work on understanding the state of the human-Earth system. A major hurdle to quantitatively understanding this system is the difficulty of finding and parsing the relevant data, which is often within long, complicated reports. In order to facilitate access to this data, we created the Human Impacts Database, which houses a collection of $>$ 300 carefully curated values related to human impacts on the Earth, introduced in Chapter 4. In this chapter, we describe the format of the database as well as demonstrate how it can be harnessed to gain a more holistic perspective on humanity's influence on the Earth.

Having this data is only a starting point towards deciphering the ways that humans are altering the state of the Earth, though. In Chapter 5, we combine these quantitative measurements with simple order-of-magnitude estimates to gain an intuition for the magnitude of several of the values. In this way, we show that many of the ways humanity is affecting the Earth can be tied back to how much land, water, and power we use. We further contextualize the magnitude of human influence by comparing human activities to natural analogs, finding that humans currently rival natural processes in influencing the state of the Earth system.

Item Type:Thesis (Dissertation (Ph.D.))
Subject Keywords:non-equilibium, active matter, self-organization, human-Earth system, Anthropocene
Degree Grantor:California Institute of Technology
Division:Chemistry and Chemical Engineering
Major Option:Biochemistry and Molecular Biophysics
Thesis Availability:Public (worldwide access)
Research Advisor(s):
  • Phillips, Robert B.
Thesis Committee:
  • Van Valen, David A. (chair)
  • Bois, Justin S.
  • Thomson, Matthew
  • Phillips, Robert B.
Defense Date:21 December 2021
Non-Caltech Author Email:rachannbanks (AT)
Funding AgencyGrant Number
NIHR01 GM085286
NIH1R35 GM118043-01
John Templeton Foundation51250
John Templeton Foundation60973
Record Number:CaltechTHESIS:11282021-042001335
Persistent URL:
Related URLs:
URLURL TypeDescription adapted for Chapter 2 adapted for Chapter 3 adapted for Chapter 4
Banks, Rachel A.0000-0003-2028-2925
Default Usage Policy:No commercial reproduction, distribution, display or performance rights in this work are provided.
ID Code:14435
Deposited By: Rachel Banks
Deposited On:13 Jun 2022 22:25
Last Modified:08 Nov 2023 00:41

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