We are a theory group interested in the physics involved in the spatial organization of the cell cytoplasm and the formation of proto-cells at the origin of life. In both cases, compartmentalisation is key to provide stable regions of controlled chemical composition in order to host molecules for chemical reactions and biological function. We aim to identify the physio-chemical mechanisms underlying the assembly, positioning and ageing of liquid-like compartments. In particular, we would like to understand the link between these mechanisms and the occurrence of biological function. Our group uses concepts from the field of phase transitions, non-equilibrium thermodynamics, and elasticity theory, 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".