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LMU physicists have shown that topological phases could exist in biology, and in so doing they have identified a link between solid-state physics and biophysics.

The concept of topological phase transitions has become an important topic in theoretical physics, and was first applied to the characterization of unusual states of matter in the 1980s. The quantum Hall effect (QHE) is one example where ideas drawn from topology have yielded new insights into initially puzzling phenomena. The QHE is observed in atomically thin films. When these, effectively two-dimensional, materials are subjected to a smoothly varying magnetic field, their electrical resistance changes in discrete steps. The significance of such topological states in condensed-matter physics was acknowledged by the award of the 2016 Nobel Prize for Physics to its discoverers.

Now LMU physicists led by Professor Erwin Frey have used this same topological concept to elucidate the dynamics of a biological system. "We asked whether the kinds of stepwise topological phase transitions discovered in solid-state physics could be found in biological systems," says Philipp Geiger, a doctoral student in Frey's team and joint first author of the new study together with Johannes Knebel. The chosen for investigation was one that Frey's group had previously employed to investigate the population dynamics of ecosystems in which diverse mobile species compete with each other.

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