What is the shape of cells? (PRL article by Leiden researchers Pomp, Schakenraad, Giomi, Schmidt and others)


Cells in our body are constantly performing small tasks, such as repairing wounds. They exert force by changing shape. But how do cells translate their shape into exerting a force in a specific direction? Experimental and theoretical Leiden physicists have now found a clue to answer this question. Cells’ shapes turn out to be approximated by arcs of an ellipse. Publication in Physical Review Letters on October 29th.

Suppose you trip on the sidewalk and get a small graze wound on your elbow. What do you do? Perhaps you should disinfect it, but for the rest: leave it alone. Before we get a chance to even think about it, millions of fibroblast cells have already started the healing process. Among other things, they close the small gaps in the skin by pulling tissue together. Cells perform this job, like all of their other jobs, by changing their shape. It enables them to exert force and feel their surroundings. People actually do the same thing: they change their posture while fixing a tire or search for the alarm clock in the dark. But how do cells translate their shape into applying a force in a specific direction? A collaboration of experimental and theoretical physicists from Leiden University have now found a clue to answer this question. The team, led by Luca Giomi and Thomas Schmidt, discovered that the shape of cells can be well approximated with segments of a particular ellipse.

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