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Free energy in the woods

Clay Clark

Clay Clark – @biochemprof I'm on ScienceSeeker-Microscope

The Gibbs Conference on Biothermodynamics recently held its 26th annual meeting in Carbondale, IL. The Gibbs conference began in 1986 with a meeting to discuss the discipline of thermodynamics in biological systems. How does one apply the rigorous techniques utilized in thermodynamic studies to biological systems? How does one move away from the “garbage can thermodynamics,” as described by Gary Ackers, to learn fundamental processes in biology?

As described by Ackers and Bolen (1)

A widespread view of thermodynamics was that:

(1) Thermodynamic approaches were archaic, and, at best, ancillary to the central problems of biochemistry, as reinforced by the commonly-heard slogan ‘thermodynamics can tell us nothing about mechanisms.’

(2) The subject was usually taught poorly or not at all in departments of chemistry and biochemistry.

(3) A long-standing tradition of equating thermodynamics with only a single technique (i.e., calorimetry) had contributed to the narrow and insular perception of the field and its potential.

(4) Thermodynamics had seldom been fused with modem developments of structural analysis and computational chemistry.

The goal was to move away from simply measuring changes in Gibbs free energy to fill in tables found in textbooks and to learn how one can use the techniques to describe cellular reactions – enzymology, protein-protein and protein-ligand interactions, nucleic acid-ligand interactions, biological membranes, to name a few. In doing so, the conference has been spectacularly successful in advancing the field of biothermodynamics.

Gibbs26 Logo

Logo for Gibbs26

One underlying theme of the Gibbs conference is that it is accessible to graduate students and post-doctoral trainees, and approximately half of the oral presentations are from trainees. In recent years, training sessions (called Saturday Night Thermo) have been added to include flash talks and career panels that focus on both academic and industrial positions. In order to keep costs low and make the conference accessible to trainees, the conference was moved to “Touch of Nature” conference center at Southern Illinois University, Carbondale, IL, in 1988. The rustic setting provides many opportunities for students to discuss science with leaders in the field, either during scientific sessions, poster sessions, or at the nightly bonfire by the lake.

Gibbs Trebuchet

Trebuchet firing at Gibbs 26

To honor Gary Ackers’ contribution to the field of biothermodynamics and to the Gibbs conference, the Gary Ackers Lecture was founded in 2009. This year, Dr. Enrico Di Cera described his work on trypsin-like proteases and distinguishing between induced-fit versus conformational selection mechanisms. In learning about conformational selection between pre-existing E* and E forms, Enrico has established a new paradigm in the protease field and defined new strategies for drug design (2).

Each year the Gibbs conference provides new memories that eventually border on becoming folklore. This year a group from Notre Dame University brought a trebuchet and fired flaming gourds into the lake (see picture above). Carbondale does not have a large airport, so each year when I attend the Gibbs conference, I try to spend time in St. Louis visiting friends or touring the city. This year, however, my students and I decided to spend a day in Memphis, TN, before driving to Carbondale. We’ve put together a slide show featuring Memphis blues, barbecue, and free energy in the woods. Great talks, great science, great company, and plenty of beer. We hope you enjoy it.

For more information on the Gibbs conference, see the updated history by Shea et al. (3)


1. Ackers, G.K. & Bolen, D.W. (1997). The Gibbs conference on biothermodynamics: Origins and evolution, Biophysical Chemistry, 64 (1-3) 5. DOI: 10.1016/S0301-4622(96)02246-6

2. Vogt, A.D. & Di Cera, E. (2012). Conformational Selection or Induced Fit? A Critical Appraisal of the Kinetic Mechanism, Biochemistry, 51 (30) 5902. DOI: 10.1021/bi3006913

3. Shea, M.A., Correia, J.J. & Brenowitz, M.D. (2011). Introduction: Twenty five years of the Gibbs Conference on Biothermodynamics, Biophysical Chemistry, 159 (1) 5. DOI: 10.1016/j.bpc.2011.07.002