Mechanobiology — Tour de Force

Brazil - geometry of soft matter poster

Suzan Mazur: Nigel Goldenfeld in recent years referred to biology as the ‘new condensed matter physics.’

Eugene Koonin: Yes. He wrote a paper with the late Carl Woese where they expressed this, and I agree. Maybe with a caveat. I would rather say biology has to become the new condensed matter physics.”—“Eugene Koonin: ‘The New Evolutionary Biology,'” Huff Post

Not since the biomath genius of D’Arcy Thompson, the Osaka structuralists, and the curve of Manolo Blahnik has the science of shape been so in the spotlight as now.  From the Americas to the UK and Europe to Singapore and Down Under Australia, events are in evidence drawing attention to the dynamics of mechanobiology and to the mechanome.

What do I mean by mechanobiology and the mechanome?  Wikipedia defines mechanobiology as “an emerging field of science at the interface of biology and engineering that focuses on how physical forces and changes in the mechanical properties of cells and tissues contribute to development, cell differentiation, physiology, and disease.”

And the mechanome?  Think systems-level “omics,” regarding the role of force, mechanics, and machinery in biology. 

[See also next month’s University of California-Irvine meeting, “The Mechanome in Action,” in the conference list that follows.]

The mechanobiology field actually goes by assorted names, among them: soft matter, the new condensed matter physics, morphomechanics, morphometrics, biomechanics, biophysics, mathematical biology (partial list), and importantly integrates life across the board: animals, plants, fungi, microbes—which has to include viruses.  It also encompasses materials science.  So you can put active matter under the mechanobiology umbrella (but without Lee Cronin’s “Alien chemist“).

When I say mechanobiology is all the rage, I’m not simply referring to lab research and scientific conferences on the subject, although they are, of course, central.  But also to:  (1) mechanobiology university courses based on current scientific papers (not textbooks); (2) academic bootcamp to train high school teachers about mechanobiology; (3) university fellowships tied to the mentoring of students K-12 on mechanobiology; (4) various museum installations, including a permanent, full scale exhibit on shape designed to interactively educate kids as young as toddlers—to cite a few examples.

Private foundations such as the Simons Foundation;  government organizations—in particular, the National Science Foundation and National Institutes of  Health in the US, European Research Council, and Singapore’s National Research Foundation; plus industry are all keen on supporting the science, with industry recognizing extensive possibilities for applications. 

For example, the Center for Engineering and MechanoBiology (CEMB) at the University of Pennsylvania has a robust mechanobiology program, describing its mission as follows:

“CEMB, with its focus on the interactions between structure, mechanics, and function in both the plant and animal kingdoms, will have a major impact on the ability to construct engineered tissues and organs, create new scaffolds for tissue repair and regeneration, integrate implants in reconstructive surgery, provide therapy for tissue inflammation and fibrosis, develop designer cellulose fibers, manage crops that are resistant to stresses and require fewer resources, and understand the positive and negative effects of exercise, activity, and trauma.”

And Washington University in St. Louis , a CEMB partner, cites this as its aim in mechanobiology training:

“The overarching goal of the MBnc Training Program is to provide pre-doctoral students at Washington University with the insight and skills needed to elucidate the role of mechanical forces in biological systems across many length scales. . . . We aim to provide pre-doctoral students in basic biological science with enhanced training in mechanics and to train pre-doctoral engineering and physics students to apply advanced mechanics to biological problems.  These ambitious paired objectives will enhance interactions among students and provide trainees with skill sets tailored to address questions involving mechanics in biology.”

So, after decades of being derailed by selfish gene dogma, biology appears to be back on course and mechanobiology flourishing.

Following is a country-by-country sampling of recent and future mechanobiology conferences:


(1)    InCem, “International Symposium Measuring and Modelling Cell Migration,” Vienna, Austria, February 22-25, 2018

(2)    8th Summer School on Biomechanics, from Tissue to Organ: Modeling and Computation, Graz University of Technology, Graz, Austria, September 3-7, 2018

(3)    ATMCS8 (“Algebraic Topology, Methods, Computation and Science”), Institute of Science and Technology, Klosterneuburg, Austria, June 25-29, 2018


1st “Mechanobiology Down Under” meeting, Sydney, New South Wales, Australia, May 3-4, 2018


Geometry of Soft Matter,” International Institute of Physics, Federal University of Rio Grande do Norte, Lagoa Nova, Brazil, May 21-25, 2018


(1)     ICMCM 2018: 20th International Conference on Mathematics and Computational Mechanobiology, Montreal, Canada, May 24-25, 2018

(2)     9th International Plant Biomechanics Conference, Montreal, Canada, August 9-14, 2018


(1)    First International School on Hemophysics, Monpellier, France, May 15-18, 2018

(2)    “Physical Approaches to Understanding Microbial Life,” Summer School PALM (Laboratoire d’Excellence Physique: Atomes Lumiere Matiere), Paris, France, August 28-September 6, 2018

(3)    Physics of Living Matter, Marseille, France, September 11-12, 2018

(4)    Summer Course on Physical Biology of Morphogenesis, EMBO workshop, September 11-21, Cargese, Corsica, France

(5)    3rd International Meeting on Building the Cell, Institut Pasteur, Paris, France, September 26-28, 2018


(1)    SoftComp Topical Workshop on Filaments, Membranes, Cells and their Interactions, Research Center, Juelich, Germany, January 28-31, 2018

(2)    “Tissue Self-Organisation:  Challenging the Systems,” EMBO/EMBL symposia, EMBL, Heidelberg, Germany, March 11-14, 2018

(3)    International Titisee Conference: “117th From Oocyte to Embryo—Illuminating the Origins of Life,” Black Forest, Germany, April 11-15, 2018

(4)    “Key Challenges in Biophysics,” Munich, Germany, July 31-August 2, 2018

(5)    Biennial Meeting of the German Biophysical Society, Duesseldorf, Germany, September 16-19, 2018

(6)    International Symposium on Mechanobiology: Measuring and Modeling Cell Migration, Aachen, Germany, September 27-28, 2018

(7)    BIOMS Symposium 2018, University of Heidelberg, Germany, October 1-2, 2018

(8)    Juelich Soft Matter Days 2018, Institute for Complex Systems, Juelich, Germany, November 20-23, 2018


Q-Mat, a cross section of new condensed matter physics research, Mohali, India, July 25-27, 2018


8th World Congress of Biomechanics, Dublin, Ireland, July 8-12, 2018


(1)    “Nanoengineering for Mechanobiology,” Camogli, Genova, Italy, March 25-28, 2018

(2)    Wivace Conference highlighting the “quantum nature of biology and life,” etc., Parma, Italy, September 10-12, 2018

(3)    CISM-AIMETA Advanced School on Cell Mechanobiology:  Theory and Experiments on the Mechanics of Life, Udine, Italy, September 24-28, 2018


 20th International Conference on Mechanobiology and Biomechanics, September 13-14, 2018, Osaka, Japan


Regional Biophysics School on Mechanobiology (“From Ion Channels to Biomaterials, Animal and Plant Systems, Biophysical Techniques of Analysis”), Kotor, Montenegro, October 6-8, 2018


CMBBE 2018: 15th International Symposium Computer Methods in Biomechanics and Biomedical Engineering and 3rd Conference on Imaging and Visualization, Instituto Superior Technico, Lisbon, Portugal, March 26-29, 2018


(1)    “Physics of Cancer,” Institute of Strength Physics and Materials Science, Siberian Branch of Russian Academy of Sciences, Tomsk, Russia, May 23-26, 2017

(2)    13th Russian-German Conference on Biomedical Engineering, Aachen, Germany, May 23-25, 2018


(1)    “Mechanobiology in Health and Disease,” Mechanobiology Institute (MBI), National University of Singapore (NUS) and Institute of Medical Biology, Singapore, May 31, 2018

(2)    2018 Bootcamp on Mechanobiology: “An Integrative Approach to Understand Cell Function,” MBI, NUS, Singapore, August 2-11, 2018


Mechanobiology of Cells and Tissues in Health and Disease,” Slovenia, June 13-15, 2018


Mechanobiology Across Networks,” Spanish Network of Excellence in Mechanobiology and the European Innovative Training Network BIOPOL, Institute for Bioengineering of Catalonia, October 6-7, 2016


EMBO Workshop on Cell and Developmental Systems, Arolla, Switzerland, August 20-24, 2018

The Netherlands:

(1)    “On Growth and Form 2017” Workshop, Lorentz Center (Leiden) and Institute for Advanced Studies, University of Amsterdam, The Netherlands, October  23-27, 2017

(2)    1st International Symposium on Building a Synthetic Cell (BaSyC), Delft, The Netherlands, August 28-29, 2018

United Kingdom:

(1)    “On Growth and Form 100,” University of Dundee and University of St Andrews, Scotland, October 13-15, 2017

(2)    “Mechanics of Development,” Royal Society, Buckinghamshire, UK, February 5-7, 2018

(3)    BIOPOL Summer School on Mechanobiology of Polarized Cells, Les Houches, France, April 8-13, 2018

(4)    Physics of Life Summer School, Grey College, Durham University, UK, July 16-20, 2018

(5)    EMBO Conference—Physics of Cells: From Biochemical to Mechanical, The Majestic Hotel, Harrogate, UK, September 3-7, 2018

United States:

(1)    “Mechanics in Morphogenesis,” Princeton Center for Theoretical Science, Princeton University, Princeton, February 21-23, 2018

(2)    “Winter Q-Bio,” Quantitative Biology on the Hawaiian Islands, February 2019

(3)    20th International Conference on Computation and Mathematical Mechanobiology, World Academy of Engineering, New York, June 3-4, 2018

(4)    “Mechbio Conference 2018: The Mechanome in Action,” University of California, Irvine, July 26-27, 2018

(5)    “Mechanobiology Symposium,” CEMB (Center for Engineering MechanoBiology with support from NSF), University of Pennsylvania, Philadelphia, September 13-14, 2018 “will cover emerging issues in forces that control living systems in both plant and animal cells.”

(6)    “Morphometrics, Morphogenesis and Mathematics” workshop, Center of Mathematical Sciences and Applications (CMSA), Harvard University, October 22-26, 2018

(7)    “Morphogenesis: Geometry and Physics” workshop, CMSA, Harvard University, December 3-6, 2018

(8)    Gordon Research Conference on Physical Virology, Ventura, California, January 20-25, 2019


Mechanobiology from Molecules to Tissue,” Recontres du Vietnam, Quy Nhon, Vietnam, June 26-July 2, 2016

Labs of Special Note (in no particular order):

Wolfram Research (Stephen Wolfram)

Hernandez Research Group (Christopher Hernandez)

Nelson Group (Celeste Nelson)

MechMorpho Lab (Lance Davidson)

Manning Group (M. Lisa Manning)

Hiiragi Group (Takashi Hiiragi)

Leptin Group (Maria Leptin)

Mechanics of Mammalian Development (Jean-Léon Maître)

Vincent Fleury Lab

Emmanuel Farge Lab

Braun Lab (Dieter Braun)

The He Lab (Bing He)

MBI Laboratories

EMBL – Barcelona

Institute of Mechanics, Chinese Academy of Sciences

Center for the Physics of Living Cells, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign

Center for Biological Physics, Arizona State University

Center for Biological Physics, University of California-Los Angeles

Center for Biological Physics, University of Massachusetts-Amherst

Center for Soft Matter and Biological Physics, Virginia Tech

University of Washington:  Biological Physics, Structure & Design

University of California-San Diego:  The Biological Physics Group

Center for Quantitative Biology, University of Peking

Institute of Cell BiophysicsRussia

University Courses:

Caltech: “We will use current literature to explore concepts in signal transduction and mechanics in the context of morphogenesis.  This is an area of active research, so it can be argued that the best way to learn about it is to dive into the literature. . . . The course consists almost entirely of reading current literature.”

Washington University in St. Louis:  Among the requirements for $24,324 fellowships for graduate students in mechanobiology at Washington University, St Louis is assurance that the grad student will participate in “outreach to K-12 students or community.”  The WUSTL program looks across animal, plant and fungi kingdoms.

University of Pennsylvania:  Fall 2018, “Integrative Plant and Animal Mechanobiology,” as CEMB describes it:

 “This novel course aims to provide students with an understanding of biomechanics that spans the plant and animal kingdoms, with the goal of emphasizing principles common to both. . . . Modules include (1) Plant and Animal Cell Biology; (2) Solid, Fluid, and Transport Mechanics; and (3) Integrating Biology and Mechanics.”

CEMB also supports “a summer professional development initiative for high school science teachers around the interdisciplinary research across the broad themes of mechanobiology.  The goal is for teachers to (1) participate in a CEMB research project during the summer, (2) develop a personal curriculum plan with specific lessons and activities to use in their teaching practice the following academic year, and (3) participate in academic year workshops with the project team and other teachers.”

Books and Journals:

An Engineer’s Guide to Morphogenesis (Lance Davidson, forthcoming)

Emerging Topics in Physical Virology (eds. Peter G. Stockley, Reidun Twarock)

Mechanobiology Handbook (Jiro Nagatomi)

Morphomechanics of Development (Lev Beloussov)

Plant Biomechanics: From Structure to Function at Multiple Scales (eds. Anja Geitmann, Joseph Gril)

Acta Biomaterialia

ACS Biomaterials Science & Engineering


Biomechanics and Modeling in Mechanobiology

Biophysical Journal

Journal of Biomechanics

Journal of the Mechanical Behavior of Biomedical Materials

Nature (Mechanobiology Focus, December 2017)

Physics of Life Reviews




Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s