Specific theories developed for individual processes or contexts are important and useful, but finding general principles that apply across vast amounts of phenomena is a central goal in science. In the broadest terms, this is Chris’ goal, to find theories and principles that apply to a wide range of biological scales and hierarchies.
Chris generally focuses his work on biological architecture—which may include phenomena ranging from explicit biological morphology to metabolic and genetic network structure—as an intermediate between organism physiology and environmental conditions. Mathematical and physical theories lie at the heart of his methodologies to predict how evolution has shaped architecture and how this, in turn, forms a foundation for reliable predictions of environmental response and interaction. His work spans the scales of genetic information architecture to the morphology of microbial individuals and communities to the regional variation of plant traits and their feedback with climate and available resources. In so doing, he aims to connect these first-order trends to the limitations imposed by environments in order to predict specific evolutionary events and consequences. Several collaborations with experimentalists and theorists have led to models that inform experiments and assimilate empirical data in fields including single-cell experimental biology and forest dynamics.
For example, Chris’ work on trees has applied a theory of plant architecture to derive individual physiology, interactions with the environment, and the unique whole forest structure of specific regions. This is theory that goes from individual branches to planetary-scale energy balance, but does so in a way that uses a small set of common principles and assumptions.