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Mission of our Institute

Within the body many vital processes crucially depend on the mechanical performance of living cells. Prominent examples are the contractility of muscle cells, the generation of tissue tension or the locomotion of macrophages that permanently migrate through the body in search of pathogens.
Much less known, but equally important, is the fact that living animal cells also recognize mechanical stimuli and respond to them. Such a response to a simple mechanical signal occurs in cells of the connective tissue of the heart (cardiofibroblasts). If these cells are cultivated on substrates of enhanced stiffness, they differentiate to myofibroblasts. During this process the cells grow very much and simultaneously increase their contraction forces enormously. During this process stiffened scar tissue is contracted, which resulted from e.g. a heart attack.

Myo Fibro 3kPa & 50kPaImmunofluorescence micrographs of rat heart fibroblasts cultivated on silicone rubber. Stiffness of the rubber substrate was 3 kPa (left) and 50 kPa (right). The green label marks the cytoskeleton (actin), the red label the cellular adhesions (vinculin).

Our research targets a quantitative understanding of such mechanical properties, processes and signals of living systems. To this end we use modern methods of biophysics and cell biology to investigate animal cells of different sources. At present, we focus on the cellular activities of adhesion and migration as well as on cellular mechanosensation. We mostly study the cell membrane and its actin cytoskeleton because these structures are decisive for the aforementioned mechanical processes.

CytoskeletonScanning electron micrograph of the cytoskeleton of a rat heart fibroblast. Left: Overview, right top and bottom: zoom-in. During preparation most cell components besides the cytoskeleton were removed. Therefore, the complexity of a living cell by far exceeds those of the already complex structures shown here.

Due to the extremely complex architecture and dynamics of living cells, it is rarely possible to rigorously describe and understand specific cellular processes by the laws of physics. To this end we exploit the possibilities of simplified biomimetic model systems of the cytoskeleton and the cell membrane.

This research program is carried by an interdisciplinary team of biologists, chemists and physicists.