The Physics of Epithelia

A key question in systems biology is how tissues achieve their final size and shape during development and how they maintain or modify their morphology throughout their life. The scientists of this RTD project want to find answers to these questions by modeling the physical and biological processes generating an organ’s shape and size during development.

Epithelia are the tissues that line cavities, glands, and surfaces throughout the body. The skin, as well as the intestinal and respiratory systems, are major examples thereof. Epithelia were thought to reduce the questions of growth to a two-dimensional problem. But epithelia live in a three-dimensional world. Mechanical tensions and variations in cell densities, generated by growth, can cause the tissue to invade the third dimension. In return, cell tension might affect growth properties of epithelia. 

Bridging several scales

How growth affects mechanics and how mechanics affect growth are emerging hot research topics. But progress in research has been hampered: on the one hand for lack of a comprehensive and quantitative approach spanning several scales, e.g. from cell membrane mechanics to the organ, and on the other hand because a powerful and flexible computer model, integrating physical and biological parameters at various scales, was not available. 

Innovative technologies

In order to comprehensively understand the mechanisms shaping epithelia, multiple systems will be investigated. These range from single cells and primary culture of fruit fly and zebrafish epithelia to reptile developing skin. Therefore, innovative technologies such as biosensors that quantitatively report physical parameters of tissues, micro-imaging, micromechanic and robotic systems will be developed and used. 

Experiments and models

The EpiPhysX project relies on continuous exchange between experimental investigations and modeling. Models will integrate parameters relevant at the cell level to describe the evolution and emergence of properties at higher scales. To solve large-scale problems, they will be parallelized on high-performance multiple-core computers and made available to the systems biology community for the investigation of many additional problems.

Principal Investigator Prof. Michel C. Milinkovitch, Department of Genetics & Evolution, University of Geneva
Involved Institutions University of Geneva, University of Zurich
Number of Research Groups 5
Project Duration May 2013 – Apr. 2017
Approved SystemsX.ch Funds CHF 2.892 million

Updated June 2013


Prof. Michel C. Milinkovitch
Department of Genetics & Evolution
University of Geneva
4, Bvd d'Yvoy
CH - 1205 Geneva
phone +41 22 379 33 38

EpiPhysX featured in X-Letter 31
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