The Physics of Biology


The Physics of Biology

Major advances in quantitative & systems biology have been driven by the integration of physics and computer science approaches with innovative technological developments in molecular biology, optics, micro- and nano-manipulations. Remarkably, many questions in EvoDevo are conceptually similar to those investigated in soft-matter physics, statistical physics, and mechanics. For example, self-organizational capabilities of cells and tissues and the role of geometry and form are pertinent to EvoDevo at multiple scales and multiple levels of analysis.

The EpiPhysX Consortium (View the EpiPhysX video on our YouTube Science channel)

In collaboration with Bastien Chopard (Computer Science, UniGE), Marcos Gonzalez-Gaitan (Biochemistry, UniGE), Aurélien Roux (Biochemistry, UniGE), and Andreas Wagner (UniZH), we have built the EpiPhysX consortium (funded by, with the aim to understand how epithelial tissues achieve their final size and shape during development and how they maintain or modify their morphology throughout their life. In other words, we aim at understanding how the interactions between physical (e.g., mechanical stress) and biological (e.g., signaling, proliferation) parameters explain the 3D organization of the developing embryo. Epithelia were thought to reduce the question of growth to a two-dimensional problem. But epithelia live in a three-dimensional world. Mechanical tensions and variations in cell densities, generated by growth, can cause the tissue to invade the third dimension. In return, cell tension might affect growth properties of epithelia. Our quantitative approach spans several scales (e.g., from cell membrane mechanics to the organ) and incorporates the development of a powerful and flexible computer model. The consortium investigates multiple systems (from single cells and primary culture of fruit fly and zebrafish epithelia to reptile skin) and develops innovative technologies (such as biosensors that quantitatively report physical parameters of tissues, micro-imaging, micromechanic and robotic systems). The EpiPhysX project relies on continuous exchange between experimental investigations and modeling.

The ‘United-Living-Colors.CH’ consortium

Together with Dirk van der Marel (Quantum Materials Group, UniGE) and Matthias Zwicker (Computer Graphics Group, UniBE) we have built the United Living Colours “dot CH” consortium (funded by the Swiss National Foundation SINERGIA multidiciplinary program). In this project, we investigate the complex interactions between light and the vertebrate skin and how they generate a variety of astonishing phenomena of significant fundamental and applied interest (e.g., as an inspiration for biomimetic artificial materials). For example, we integrate EvoDevo with 3D computer graphics and physics to understand and model the spectacular photonic properties and hyper-hydrophobicity of natural nanostructures. See for example our work on the skin colour of Phelsuma lizards HERE and on chameleon colour changes HERE.

The 2013 Physics of Biology international meeting in Geneva

Jean-Pierre Eckmann (theoretical Physics, UniGE), Marcos Gonzalez-Gaitan (Biochemistry, UniGE), Michel C. Milinkovitch (Genetics & Evolution, UniGE), and Aurélien Roux (Biochemistry, UniGE) have organised the Geneva Physics of Biology 2013 international meeting to foster interactions between physicists and biologists active at the interface between these two disciplines. The meeting proposed plenary lectures of mathematicians, theoretical physicists, and experimentalists that are among the most innovative researchers in Quantitative and System Biology (single-molecule biophysics, cellular mechanics, tissue growth and homeostasis during development, structure and dynamics of biological networks etc.). Talk posters were also presented by young researchers. This meeting advertised the importance of Geneva and the Lemanic region in this emerging scientific discipline. Indeed, the University of Geneva and the EPFL are among the world leaders in both Life Sciences and Physical sciences. This high level of excellence extends to Quantitative & Systems Biology as these two institutions have pro-actively initiated the development of interdisciplinary research teams and teaching programs.

More info HERE.

Selected publications

  1. Teyssier, Saenko, van der Marel & Milinkovitch.
    Photonic Crystals Cause Active Colour Change in Chameleons
    Nature Communications 6: 6368 (2015)
  2. BulletOpen Access

  3. BulletSupporting Information (Suppl Figs 1-4, Suppl Table 1, Suppl Text and Refs)

  4. BulletSupplementary movie S1

  5. BulletSupplementary movie S2

  6. BulletSupplementary movie S3

  7. BulletSupplementary movie S4

  8. BulletSupplementary movie S5

  9. Coverage

  10. Bulletcheck here

  1. Saenko S., Teyssier J., van der Marel D. & M. C. Milinkovitch
    Precise co-localisation of interacting structural and pigmentary elements generates extensive colour pattern variation in Phelsuma lizards
    BMC Biology 2013, 11: 105

  2. BulletOpen Access

  3. BulletMovies

  1. Milinkovitch M.C., Manukyan L., Debry A., Di-Poï N., Martin S.,
    Dhillon D.S., Lambert D., Zwicker M.
    Crocodile Head Scales Are Not Developmental Units But Emerge
    from Physical Cracking
    Science 339, 78-81 (2013)

  2. BulletDownload a FREE reprint (PDF) of the article

  3. BulletDownload the Supplementary Materials file

  4. BulletWatch the Supplementary Movie (also available HERE and in YouTube)

  5. BulletCheck the slideshow from Science

  6. BulletCheck Sarah C. P. Williams’ article in ScienceNOW

  7. Coverage

  8. BulletCheck the slideshow from BBC Nature

  9. BulletCheck the Movie illustrating the Computer Graphics Tools (version 1)

  10. BulletCheck the Movie illustrating the Computer Graphics Tools (version 2)

  11. Check more coverage (TV programs, Websites, and News Papers) HERE

  12. Morlot S., Galli V., Klein M., Chiaruttini N., Manzi J., Humbert F., Dinis L., Lenz M., Cappello G. 
    & A Roux.
    Membrane Shape at the Edge of the Dynamin Helix Sets Location and Duration of the Fission Reaction
    Cell 151, 619-629 (2012)

  13. Wartlick O., Mumcu P., Kicheva A., Bittig T., Seum C., Jülicher F. & M. González-Gaitán
    Dynamics of Dpp signaling and proliferation control
    Science 331, 1154-1159 (2011)

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