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Bronk, Benedikt von; Götz, Alexandra; Opitz, Madeleine (2018): Complex microbial systems across different levels of description. In: Physical Biology, Vol. 15, No. 5, 51002
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Complex biological systems offer a variety of interesting phenomena at the different physical scales. With increasing abstraction, details of the microscopic scales can often be extrapolated to average or typical macroscopic properties. However, emergent properties and cross-scale interactions can impede naive abstractions and necessitate comprehensive investigations of these complex systems. In this review paper, we focus on microbial communities, and first, summarize a general hierarchy of relevant scales and description levels to understand these complex systems: (1) genetic networks, (2) single cells, (3) populations, and (4) emergent multi-cellular properties. Second, we employ two illustrating examples, microbial competition and biofilm formation, to elucidate how cross-scale interactions and emergent properties enrich the observed multi-cellular behavior in these systems. Finally, we conclude with pointing out the necessity of multi-scale investigations to understand complex biological systems and discuss recent investigations.