Historical photo of George Oster (Image: SFi archives)

SFI Science Board member George Oster passed away Sunday, April 15, at the age of 77. A biophysicist based at UC Berkeley, Oster used insights from physics to understand the mechanical workings of complex life. 

A self-described “dabbler” by his 2006 profile in PNAS, Oster studied a panoply of phenomena in ecology, evolution, embryology, and cell and molecular biology. While many of Oster’s fellow scientists regarded him as a luminary, he was modest about his own achievements. He attributed his success to meeting “the right people at the right time” and working on “the right problems… with people smarter than I am.”

With Science Board member Robert May, Oster co-authored one of the early influential papers on population chaos within an ecosystem. He modeled social insects with Edward Wilson, morphogenesis with Pere Alberch (1954-1998), and optimal immune system strategies with External Professor and Science Board member Alan Perelson, who was Oster's classmate in the UC Berkeley graduate program in biophysics. Oster and Perelson also invented the idea of shape space to understand how the immune system could identify foreign molecules.

“Oster was very fortunate to be a part of the great generation of scientists who had audacity and freedom to move between disciplines,” writes Alex Mogilner (New York University), a mathematician who worked with Oster as a postdoctoral fellow. “[Oster] was one of the first biophysicists who ‘married’ experiment and theory by developing computational models of a bewildering variety of molecular machines… [He] established a now common approach to solving biological puzzles by iterative cycles of modeling and experimentation.”

Oster was best known for illuminating the mechanisms and forces that allow cells and bacteria to move through their environments. “It would not be an exaggeration to say that Oster more than any other physicist or mathematician inspired our current understanding of molecular motors,” Mogilner writes. “[He] pioneered an important shift from conceptual to detailed and predictive mathematical models of biological systems.” 

Oster found his way to biophysics through the world-famous scientist Aharon Katchalsky (1914-1972), who recruited him to work on the thermodynamics of biological networks. Though their collaborations were cut short when Katchalsky was killed in a terrorist attack, Oster credited Katchalsky for turning him into a scientist. 

Before working with Katchalsky he had spent time as a nuclear engineer and a U.S. naval officer.

Among many honors he received over the course of his career, Oster was a Guggenheim Fellow in 1978 and a MacArthur Foundation Fellow in 1985. In 2014, he was elected to the National Academy of Sciences and awarded the Raymond and Beverly Sackler International Prize in Biophysics for “discovery of physical principles behind intracellular force generation in cell motility, morphogenesis and biological pattern formation.” 

“RIP Theoretical biologist George Oster,” writes External Professor Ricard Solé. “Along with the late Pere Alberch [he] wrote visionary papers that predated the rise of evodevo.”

"George saw the world in a unique way and will be sorely missed," says Perelson, who collaborated with Oster for over 20 years. "He was the smartest man I ever knew."

Mogilner remembers Oster as “a warm man who radiated the joy of doing science. He will be sorely missed by the scientific community and by his many friends who have been lucky to bask in the light of George’s mind.”

Read the obituary Alex Mogilner wrote for Molecular Biology and Cell (publication pending)

Read the Profile of George Oster in PNAS (February 7, 2006)