EPFL BioE Talks SERIES "Biological Shapes Emerging From Physics at the Nanoscale"


Event details

Date 28.03.2022
Hour 16:0017:00
Speaker Prof. Sonia Contera, Clarendon Laboratory, Physics Department, University of Oxford (UK)
Location Online
Category Conferences - Seminars
Event Language English

Biological Shape is central to many scientific and technological problems. Currently, the properties of complex, adaptive biological shapes and structures are studied in diverse fields of biology, medicine, engineering, materials, computer science and biological physics.  The shapes of biological tissues emerge from a complex interplay of physics, chemistry and genetics (evolution) that creates structures able to adapt to their environments and allow organisms to survive and process information across temporal and special scales.  Shape and mechanical stability of living organisms rely on precise control in time and space of growth, which is achieved by dynamically tuning the mechanical properties of their hierarchically built structures from the nanometer up.
 In my lab we use one of the main tools of nanotechnology, the atomic force microscope (AFM), to extract the physics underlying the emergence of biological shapes from the nanoscale.  It is now well established that cellular behaviour (including stem cell differentiation) crucially depends on the mechanical properties of the cells’ environment. Much attention has been directed towards the importance of the stiffness of the natural or artificial matrices where cells grow, with the purpose of either understanding mechanotransduction, or controlling the behaviour of cells in medical applications such as  tissue engineering. While stiffness has been the focus of most experimental research, neither cells nor matrices are elastic. Biological systems dissipate energy (i.e. they are viscous), present different time responses at different spatial scales that characterise their responses to external stimuli. Measuring viscoelasticity at the nanoscale has remained experimentally challenging [1,2]. In my talk I will present  AFM-based techniques to measure and map the viscoelasticity of living tissues, cells, membranes, collagen, extracellular matrices, and tissue engineering matrices across the spatial and temporal scales, and chip-based spectroscopic techniques to assess viscoelasticity from Hz to 100s kHz at the nano and micro scale developed in my lab.  Our results have uncovered that extracellular matrices of both living plants and tumours present an almost perfect linear viscoelastic behaviour that is key to understand their growth and shape. I will present our work showing how the growth and shape of the roots, leaves and hypocotyl of living Arabidopsis thaliana living plants are related to the nanoscale viscoelasticity of plant cell walls [3] at the time scales probed by multifrequency AFM and how this can be understood using concepts and theories from non-equilibrium thermodynamics. I will also show how this knowledge can be used to create “smart” bioinspired materials, which progressively will harness biological properties, such as adaptation, and eventually learning [4].

[1] “Multifrequency AFM reveals lipid membrane mechanical properties and the effect of cholesterol in modulating viscoelasticity” 2019. Z Al-Rekabi, S Contera; Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences 115 (11), 2658-2663.
[2] “Mapping nanomechanical properties of live cells using multi-harmonic atomic force microscopy”2011  A Raman, S Trigueros, A Cartagena, APZ Stevenson, M Susilo, E Nauman, S  Contera. Nature Nanotechnology 6 (12), 809.
[3] “Mapping cellular nanoscale viscoelasticity and relaxation times relevant to growth of living Arabidopsis thaliana plants using multifrequency AFM” J Seifert, C Kirchhelle, I Moore, S Contera.  Acta Biomaterialia, 2021;121:371-382.
[4] “Nano comes to life: How nanotechnology is transforming medicine and the future of biology” Sonia Contera, Princeton University Press 2019.

(from Wikipedia)
Sonia Antoranz Contera (born 1970) is a Spanish physicist. She serves as Professor of Biological Physics at the University of Oxford, a Senior Fellow at the Oxford Martin School, and a Senior Research Fellow at Green Templeton College. She studied for her Licenciatura in Physics at the Autonomous University of Madrid and went on to study in Moscow, Prague and Beijing. She received her PhD from Osaka University in 2000, where her supervisor was Hiroshi Iwasaki.
Having traveled extensively during her education, Contera speaks Spanish, English, Chinese, Czech, Russian, Danish, Japanese, German and French.
Contera's research uses physics and nanotechnology to understand biological problems. She has a special interest in the role of mechanics in biology and designs nanomaterials that mimic biological functions for biomedical applications such as drug delivery and tissue engineering. In 2003, she began working at Oxford. Contera was Co-Director of the Oxford Martin Programme on Nanotechnology for Medicine from 2008 to 2013. In 2014–2016, she was a Member of the World Economic Forum Global Agenda Council on Nanotechnology. In 2017, Contera was appointed Chair of the Scanning Probe Microscopy Section of the Royal Microscopical Society.
Contera's book Nano Comes to Life: How Nanotechnology is transforming medicine and the future of Biology (Princeton University Press) was published December 2019. The book was reviewed by Nature, Nature Physics, the New Scientist, BBC Science Focus and was featured in BBC Radio 4 "Start of the Week". It was published in paperback in 2022, in Chinese by CITIC press and in Japanese by Newton Press.
Contera is also a public speaker on the medical, philosophical and social consequences of the science emerging at the interface of nanotechnology, physics and biology; she has spoken in forums such as the Royal Institution of Great Britain. She also writes on communication and the mission of science.

Zoom link (with one-time registration for the whole series) for attending remotely: https://go.epfl.ch/EPFLBioETalks

Instructions for 1st-year Ph.D. students who are under EDBB’s mandatory seminar attendance rule:
IF you are not attending in-person in the room, please make sure to
  1. send D. Reinhard a note before noon on seminar day, informing that you plan to attend the talk online, and
  2. be signed in on Zoom with a recognizable user name (not a pseudonym making it difficult or impossible to be identified).
Students attending the seminar in-person should collect a confirmation signature after the talk - please print your own signature sheet beforehand (71 kB pdf available for download here).

Practical information

  • Informed public
  • Registration required