Every living thing moves—prey from predators, ants to crumbs, leaves toward sunlight. But at the most fundamental level, scientists are still struggling to grasp the physics behind how our own cells build, move, transport and divide.

“The mechanisms that allow organisms to move and change shape are inherent to life, and they are all underlaid by physics,” said Margaret Gardel, professor of physics at the University of Chicago. “But despite how central they are for our understanding of biology, a great deal of these remain poorly understood.”

Gardel led an innovative new study, which for the first time recreates the mechanism of cell division—outside a cell. The experiment, led by postdoctoral fellow Kim Weirich and published May 21 in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, helps scientists understand the physics by which cells carry out their everyday activities, and could one day lead to medical breakthroughs, ideas for new kinds of materials or even artificial cells.

“How cells divide is one of the most basic aspects of trying to create life, and it’s something we’ve been trying to understand for hundreds of years,” said study senior author Gardel, who combines physics and biology to study the ways by which cells transform themselves.

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