Cottrell College Science Awards - 2015
The Cell as an Adaptive Composite Material: Mechanics and Force Transmission
At the interface of biology and engineering, mechanobiology is an increasingly important area of study. It focuses on the structure, forces and functions that affect living cells and tissues. Recent research in mechanobiology points to the possibility that cell mechanics and related phenomena may contribute to atherosclerosis, asthma, and even cancer.
Moumita Das, assistant professor of physics at Rochester Institute of Technology, has received a Cottrell College Science Award from Research Corporation for Science Advancement to delve deeply into fundamental mechanobiology principles.
Specifically, she and her students will attempt to understand and predict structure-mechanics-function relations in cells and the extracellular matrix (ECM). The ECM is a dynamic and complex environment composed of a collection of molecules secreted by cells that provides structural and biochemical support to those cells.
“Mechanical response of most cells is largely due to the cytoskeleton and its interaction with the ECM,” Das notes. The cytoskeleton serves as the cell’s muscle and skeleton, a relatively robust three-dimensional matrix composed of a series of proteins that provide shape, support, and movement.
The cytoskeleton and the ECM are both composed of long chains of molecules called polymers that are organized into networks exhibiting various physical properties.
“Most previous studies have modeled these networks as made of a single polymer type, thereby missing important properties,” Das said. She has recently developed theories of the equilibrium material properties of in-vitro biopolymer networks that arise due to their composite nature; she will be testing these theories in this line of research.
In addition, Das also hopes to integrate the composite mechanical morphology of live cells and the ECM with their active force response, and investigate emergent properties arising due to the interaction among microstructure, mechanics, and statistical mechanics.
“This framework can be broadly applied to a wide range of multi-component systems in biophysics, biomimetics [imitating biological systems] and soft matter,” she said, adding her predictions and results will be compared with experiments performed in the laboratories of several colleagues.