Theoretical physics of biology

Lead Research Organisation: The Francis Crick Institute

Abstract

In order to establish the proper shape of the embryo, cells must migrate, divide, and deform. The simultaneous motion and deformation of the large number of cells that make a tissue give rise to flows at the scale of the embryo, which are necessary for proper embryogenesis. Our research program aims at understanding, from the point of view of theoretical physics, how cells deform, how tissue-scale flows emerge from cells pulling and pushing on each other inside an organ or a developing embryo, and how these forces are coordinated to allow the embryo to self-organize from a single cell to an animal.

Technical Summary

This work was supported by the Francis Crick Institute which receives its core funding from the UK Medical Research Council (FC001000), the Wellcome Trust (FC001000),and Cancer Research UK (FC001000)

We are a theoretical physics group, studying how physical principles play a role in biology, in order to attain a quantitative description of biological processes at the cellular and tissue scale. To reach that goal, we use methods from soft matter physics and non-linear dynamics and develop new theoretical and computational tools. Since biological systems function out-of-equilibrium, we also aim at understanding better the physical properties of active matter.

We are especially interested in mechanics and shape generation at the level of cells and tissues. At the cell level, the cytoskeleton is driving cellular deformations and the motion of cell organelles, allowing for instance for cell division and migration. To understand these cellular processes, we need to ask how cytoskeletal filaments and motors work together and interact with other cellular components.

At the tissue level, properly orchestrated morphogenetic movements in epithelia and tissues allow animals to develop and establish their shape. Morphogenetic events rely on force generation in the cell, which has to be regulated biologically. We then ask from a physical point of view how genetic regulation and forces act together to shape the embryo.
We work in close collaboration with experimentalists to address these questions. We have been working recently in particular on the physics of cell migration, on the mechanics of early zebrafish gastrulation, on the flow of cells occurring in morphogenesis of tissues, on the 3D shape of epithelia and formation of folds in Drosophila embryo.

Publications

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