Mechanical forces, half of the alphabet to understand life

Embryo of a zebrafish. Credit: Philipp Keller/HHMI Janelia Research Campus

Over the past two decades, more scientists have started paying attention to the importance of physics in the development of organs and organisms. Developing embryos, for instance such of this zebrafish in the picture, rely on physical forces to sculpt them as they grow. Therefore, researchers have begun to define the mechanisms by which cells sense, respond to and generate forces. 

Now, science writer Amber Dance, have asked some of the most influential researchers in the field of mechanobiology and she have written a piece in the Journal Nature under the title The secret forces that squeeze and pull life into shape”.  

One of the well-renowned experts consulted by Amber Dance is Xavier Trepat, a mechanobiologist and engineer at the Institute for Bioengineering of Catalonia, where is he leading the research group Integrative Cell and Tissue Dynamics. 

In words of Xavier Trepat, one of the most prominent researchers in the field: “Considering only genes and biomolecules is like you’re trying to write a book with only half the letters of the alphabet”. 

Indeed, Xavier Trepat, an ICREA Research Professor and Group Leader at IBEC, knows very well the importance of mechanics in biological systems. He and his team has developed several technologies to observe and measure at a nanometric scale the cell properties. Doing so, Trepat and his colleagues have contributed to a better understanding of the fundamental biophysical mechanisms underlaying interaction and cellular communication. On the way, Trepat and colleagues have reported amazing discoveries such super stretchy cells.  

But Trepat has also focuses on the role of physics in disease. As pointed out for the article in the recent paper in Nature, the mechanical properties of tissues also play a part in abnormal cell growth, such as in cancer. In Trepat´s wordsStiffness makes cancer cells more malignant”. 

Thus, mechanical forces determine biological entities such cells and organs, both in health and disease and therefore, as pointed out by Trepat in a recent tweet linked to the Nature paper: “Understanding a cell without physics is like trying to write a book with only half the letters of the alphabet”.