Research Areas

Our research is focused on understanding the coupling between chemistry and mechanics at material interfaces. The overarching motivation for this study of chemomechanics is the biological cell. There is increasing experimental evidence that changes in the local mechanical environment (e.g., material stiffness or applied force) and chemical environment (e.g., pH or biomolecule concentrations) of cells correlate with changes in cell shape and function. Although the individual proteins at this interface are now well studied, the mechanisms by which mechanical and chemical signals are exchanged across this interface to impact cell functions are not fully understood. We aim to elucidate this chemomechanical coupling at the molecular scale, leveraging the perspectives and tools of materials physics. We focus on cell interfaces and environments relevant to wound healing and inflammation, cancer, and stem/precursor cell development. To aid our development of new tools and models of such complex interfaces, we also study engineered nanocomposites and nanostructures that share this strong chemomechanical coupling.

We investigate material chemomechanics through both experiments and simulations, which are integrated among three main efforts:

Chemomechanics at the cell-material interface: Here, we seek to understand the mechanisms by which the mechanical and biochemical properties of extracellular microenvironments modulate cell adhesion and biological processes. For example:

  • Effects of molecular tether stiffness on unbinding kinetics of ligand-receptor pairs (Walton et al., 2008)
  • Effects of finite thickness of engineered substrata on adherent cell traction and morphology (Maloney et al., 2008)
  • Effects of substrata elastic moduli on adhesion of eukaryotic (Thompson et al., 2006; Chen et al., 2010) and prokaryotic (Lichter et al., 2008 & 2009) cells
  • Effects of extended passaging of bone marrow stromal cells (MSCs) on stiff substrata, in both the adherent and resuspended states (Maloney et al., 2010)

Chemomechanics of complex gels: Both the interior and exterior of biological cells comprise materials described as crowded gels and polymer networks, often existing in metastable states that are perturbed via external cues. We explore chemomechanics in synthetic gels that either (1) interface with biological cells, and thus serve as a tool to modulate cell environments; or (2) are not intended as biomaterials, but serve as excellent physical models of such complex biopolymers.

Chemomechanics of defected crystals and nanocomposite interfaces: The interfaces within subcellular structures – and also between cells & adjacent materials – are dynamic. Both biologists and material scientists have referred to these interfacial regions as interphases, characterized by unique nanostructue and viscoelastic behavior. Here, we develop new computational models and experiments to characterize the chemomechanical evolution of such nanoscale interphases in engineered materials.

We greatly appreciate investment in our research efforts from federal funding agencies, foundations, and industrial consortia, including:

Singapore-MIT Alliance for Research & TechnologyHuman Frontiers Science Program