Research Groups

Physics of Life

“We aim to reveal physical principles and develop physical concepts that underly the dynamic self-organization of living matter.”

We are interested in the mechanisms by which structure and form arises in living systems. We bridge from the molecular to the tissue scale, and focus on the coupling of chemistry and mechanics in self-organized pattern formation in living matter. We investigate morphogenetic force generation in molecules, surfaces and volumes, and work on a number of systems and model organisms ranging from in vitro systems, to the nematode worm, and quail.

At the scale of individual molecules, chemical energy in the form of ATP is used to drive active processes that can drive intracellular reactions and organize the inside of a cell. At the scale of cells and tissues, we recognize that biological matter represents a new class of active materials capable to structure itself into essentially any shape and form. We are interested in revealing unusual material properties of living matter, the physical basis self organization at these scales, and the underlying mechanisms of mechanochemical coupling. We distinguish between morphogenetic force generation processes that arise in surfaces and in volumes. In surfaces, active surface tension and active torques generated by the outer surface of the animal cell (the actomyosin cortical layer) give rise to forces that can shape cells and tissues. In volumes, active pressure arising for example via pumping, through osmotic effects, or through contraction of the surface that encloses the volume, can reshape cells, syncytia, synthetic tissues and organoids, as well as entire embryos. We seek to understand how such processes of mechanochemical self organization are guided by upstream signals and cues, and how the associated patterning processes are controlled via appropriate boundary conditions. To test our understanding and to build synthetic minimal systems we develop an active surface and active volume toolbox where force generation in surfaces and volumes is controllable.

We are motivated by the biology and use a physics approach. We ask a set of biological questions, and to answer them we work to reveal and develop further physical principles and concepts that underlie each problem. In this endeavor, we also encounter and further develop original and new physics. For example, we use concepts from generalized hydrodynamics and non-equilibrium thermodynamics to extend our understanding of soft condensed matter. At smaller scales and inside cells, noise and fluctuations and the physics of mesoscopic systems become important. Finally, concepts from dynamical systems theory play a key role when investigating the emergence of complex structures in living matter. We hope to deepen our understanding of living biological matter through this integrated approach.


1. Mechanochemical coupling in molecules:
How are intracellular vesicles primed for docking and fusion?
How do general transcription factors find targets?

2. Mechanochemical coupling in surfaces:
How are actomyosin network assembled and how are they structured?
How do actomyosin networks generate active forces and active torques?
How does the C. elegans zygote polarize?

How do tissues and organisms break left-right symmetry?

3. Mechanochemical coupling in volumes:
How are oocytes formed?

Torque generation in active pulsatory patterns.

Selected publications

Münster, Stefan; Jain, Akanksha; Mietke, Alexander; Pavlopoulos, Anastasios; Grill, Stephan W.; Tomancak, Pavel Attachment of the blastoderm to the vitelline envelope affects gastrulation of insects, Nature, 568, 395-399 (2019)

Gross, Peter;  Vijay Kumar, K.; Goehring, Nathan W.; Bois, Justin S.; Hoege, Carsten; Jülicher, Frank; Grill, Stephan .W. Guiding self-organized pattern formation in cell polarity establishment, Nature Physics 15, 293–300 (2019)

Naganathan, Sundar R.; Fürthauer, Sebastian; Rodriguez, Josana; Fievet, Thomas B.; Jülicher, Frank; Ahringer, Julie; Cannistraci, Carlo V.; Grill, Stephan W. Morphogenetic degeneracies in the actomyosin cortex, eLife, (2018)

Nishikawa, Masatoshi; Naganathan, Sundar R.; Jülicher, Frank; Grill, Stephan W. Controlling contractile instabilities in the actomyosin cortex, eLife, (2017)

Murray, David; Jahnel, Marcus; Lauer, Janelle; Avellaneda, Mario J.; Brouilly, Nicolas; Cezanne, Alice; Morales-Navarrete, Hernán; Perini, Enrico D.; Ferguson, Charles; Lupas, Andrei N.; Kalaidzidis, Yannis; Parton, Robert G.; Grill, Stephan W.; Zerial, Marino An endosomal tether undergoes an entropic collapse to bring vesicles together, Nature 537, pp. 107-111 (2016)

Naganathan, Sundar; Fürthauer, Sebastian; Nishikawa, Masatoshi; Jülicher, Frank; Grill, Stephan W. Active torque generation by the actomyosin cell cortex drives left-right symmetry breaking, eLife 3:e04165, doi:10.7554/eLife. 04165 (2014)

Vijay Kumar, Krishnamurthy; Bois, Justin S.; Jülicher, Frank; Grill, Stephan W. Pulsatory patterns in active fluids. Phys. Rev. Lett., doi:10.1103/PhysRevLett.112.208101 (2014)

Behrndt, Martin; Salbreux, Guillaume; Campinho, Pedro; Hauschild, Robert; Oswald, Felix; Roensch, Julia; Grill, Stephan W.; Heisenberg, Carl-Philipp Forces driving epithelial spreading in zebrafish gastrulation. Science 338, pp. 257-260, (2012)

Goehring, Nathan; Trong, Philipp Khuc; Bois, Justin; Chowdhury, Debanjan; Nicola, Ernesto M; Hyman, Anthony A.; Grill, Stephan W. Polarization of PAR Proteins by Advective Triggering of a Pattern-Forming System. Science 334, pp. 1137-1141, (2011)

Bois, Justin; Jülicher, Frank; Grill, Stephan W. Pattern formation in active fluids. Phys. Rev. Lett. 106, no. 2, (2011)

Mayer, Mirjam; Depken, Martin; Bois, Justin; Jülicher, Frank; Grill, Stephan W. Anisotropies in cortical tension reveal the physical basis of polarizing cortical flows. Nature 467, pp. 617-621, (2010)