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Physical Science key to solving mysteries of modern biology

Could the physical sciences of physics, maths and chemistry hold the keys that unlock the secrets behind the human body? Scientists at King’s Centre for the Physical Sciences of Life believe so, as they explore how physical and mathematical principles like force and strain inform what is happening at a molecular scale. This provides a window into the inner workings of biological systems at a greater level of detail than ever before.

Through nanoscale explorations of biological phenomena, the Centre hopes to provide a multi-scale view of what’s happening in the body, from a molecular reaction in the heart to the beat of cardiac muscle. Researchers hope this will improve our knowledge of the myriad health challenges we face and eventually develop treatments for them.

Recently the Centre held its inaugural symposium, bringing together leading scientists at King’s who are transforming our understanding of life through the innovative power of physical science.

‘What you're doing here is different. You're solving the problems of life from a whole new perspective, and you have the courage needed to change academia for the better.

"King’s is a fulcrum for the interdisciplinary knowledge needed to pull this off, and I’m proud to be part of it."– Professor Bashir Al-Hashimi, Vice President (Research & Innovation)

Co-Directors of the Centre, Professors Paula Booth and Sergi Garcia-Manyes, opened the symposium by highlighting King’s rich pedigree in tackling the world’s most important biological problems in a novel way, from Rosalind Franklin’s work on DNA to the recent £45.5 million investment in science at King’s, aiming to boost innovative interdisciplinary research and education.

Together, with Professor Rachel Bearon, Executive Dean of the Faculty of Natural, Mathematical and Engineering Sciences, they emphasised the rich new frontier opening between the physical and life sciences, and how interdisciplinary research centres can make a meaningful change, from cancer treatment to cardiac care. ‘Interdisciplinary science is at the heart of King's, and its where so much incredible research is happening. This centre, and all of you, are going to drive this ambitious project to solve real problems and make real change.’

Researchers in the Centre are expanding the horizons of physical science and furthering the possible through their interdisciplinary research. We spoke to some of the scientists driving the work of the Centre.

Exploring how cells interact in their surroundings

Alberto Elosegui Artola

Dr Alberto Elosegui-Artola - Crick Group Leader and Proleptic Lecturer, Department of Physics

Cells in tissues are in constant communication with other cells and with the material surrounding them, called the extracellular matrix. Through these communications, cells receive physical and chemical signals that govern tissue and organ behaviour. Dr Elosegui-Artola's lab aims to unravel how mechanical stimuli like forces on tissues can impact biochemical processes like the regulation of specific genes, and therefore biological functions at the molecular, cellular and tissue level.

To investigate this dynamic interrelationship, the team employ a multidisciplinary approach that integrates molecular biology, engineering, biophysics, microscopy, and computational modelling.

Understanding molecular mechanisms at the heart of the heartbeat

Elisabetta Brunello

Dr Elisabetta Brunello - British Heart Foundation Research Fellow and Lecturer at the Randall Centre for Cell & Molecular Biophysics

The molecular mechanisms that regulate the heartbeat in response to the changing needs of everyday life are still obscure. Dr Brunello’s work combines muscle mechanics and X-ray images of molecular structural changes in beating heart muscle to uncover these mechanisms, with potential implications for the treatment of the failing heart.

Digging into chemistry at the advent of life

Nested image-Saidul Islam

Dr Saidul Islam - Lecturer in Chemistry, Department of Chemistry

Saidul’s work explores the chemical origins of life on Earth. Working in ‘prebiotic chemistry’, or chemistry before biochemistry, the term comes from the belief that chemistry on early Earth had to be different to existing biochemistry, because the biological catalysts known as enzymes are too complex to have existed then.

By experimenting with how simple reactions can produce chemical compounds essential for life without enzymes, Saidul hopes to turn back the clock on how chemistry contributed to complex life at its genesis. His recent work synthesising pantetheine, a key component of Coenzyme A which is responsible for metabolism, in water using hydrogen cyanide was recently published in Science.

Studying molecular ‘on/off switches’ in cancer

Manuel Muller (1)

Dr Manuel Muller - Reader in Chemical Biology, Department of Chemistry

Manuel’s lab focuses on how proteins are controlled by post-translational modification. These naturally occurring chemical changes to amino acids, which form the building blocks of proteins, can act as ‘molecular on/off switches’ of protein function. The lab is particularly interested in a class of unusual post-translational modifications that occur on the polypeptide backbone, which connects the amino acids in a protein.

These modifications bring with them unique ways to control protein structure and function but are difficult to study using standard molecular tools in biology. Using synthetic protein chemistry, Manuel’s group is working to characterise how these, as well as more traditional post-translational modifications, control cellular life-and-death decisions. The goal of this research is to understand the role of natural anticancer proteins and to inspire the design of new medicines that rescue their function upon loss in some cancers – or provide an effective artificial alternative to them.

Probing the mechanical properties of the microenvironment

Amy Beedle

Dr Amy Beedle - Lecturer in Biological Physics, Department of Physics

The cellular microenvironment refers to the immediate surroundings of a cell. It encompasses a complex and dynamic set of factors that influence individual cells and the mechanical properties of the microenvironment play a pivotal role in shaping cellular behaviour.


Amy’s lab aims to unravel the molecular intricacies of how cells perceive and adapt to changes in the mechanical properties of their microenvironment, and how these mechanical changes can impact the electric or chemical signals they produce.

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