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.