We are a theory group interested in the physics that is involved in the spatial organization of the cell cytoplasm and the formation of proto-cells at the origin of life. In both cases we focus on the role of compartmentalization as a mechanism that can provide a stable and protective environment of controlled chemical composition in order to selectively host certain molecular species. These compartments offer a robust environment that can guide the folding of these molecules or facilitate their replication. Additionally, compartments are capable to spatially regulate chemical reactions and can also promote nucleation and growth of aggregates. In our group we aim to identify the physio-chemical mechanisms that underlie assembly, regulation and ageing of these compartments. We would like to understand the link between these mechanisms and how biological function emerges, either for the organization of the cellular cytoplasm or the development of life-like features arising from a set of inanimate molecular species. Our group uses concepts from the field of phase transitions, non-equilibrium thermodynamics, and non-linear dynamics, but also develops new approaches to describe these systems. All approaches are developed in close back and forth collaboration with experimental groups.
A central challenge is to identify the minimal and main ingredients involved in the assembly, maintenance or dynamics of intra-cellular compartments. This includes one fundamental question when physics meets biology: Does the considered living system behave similar to a thermal equilibrium system or are there clear signatures that the system is driven and favors non-equilibrium states? In other words, how much is the intra-cellular organization different to the demixing of a vinaigrette, the hardening of a drying gelatin block or the sedimentation of droplets in the gravitational field?
Our theory group is embedded into the Biological Physics division of the Max Planck Institute for the Physics of Complex Systems and the Center for Systems Biology in Dresden (Germany).
We intensively collaborate with experimental groups e.g. from the Max Planck Institute for Molecular Cell Biology and Genetics "next door" and several other experimental group from synthetic chemistry and biophysics (Read more).