Green Mechanobiology

Just like you and I, also plants have a sense of touch. Plants are exposed to mechanical forces constantly, both from within and from their environment. Plants feel the level of wind exposure and fortify their stems in response. A root grows through the soil, pushing solid dirt out of its way (in some cases even breaking through a road), to find nutrients and water. Pathogens that try to penetrate a plant set of a mechanical alarm system that activates the plants defenses, which fortify their walls to prevent the intruder from entering.
Plants sense and quantify the forces involved in these processes and convert these into biological responses. These mechano-biological couplings play a fundamental role in the way a plant reproduces, takes shape and ultimately dies. How the physical reality of mechanics interacts with the complex biological machinery of plants, and their pathogens, is largely unknown. The emerging field of Green Mechanobiology aims to understand how plants perceive, transduce, and adapt to mechanical signals.

The Green Mechanobiology group of Joris Sprakel is a truly multidisciplinary team, working at the interface of biology, (bio)physics and (bio)chemistry, in this newly emerging field of science. The team is composed of chemists, physicists, engineers and biologists that work in a highly collaborative approach and believing in the power of inclusivity. We develop new tools using engineering (microfluidics, 3D printing) and chemistry (custom fluorescent mechanoprobes), make heavy use of state-of-the-art imaging and algorithmic analysis and employ these techniques to understand how plants obtain their sense of touch, how pathogens use mechanical forces as a weapon, and how this controls the development and demise of plants.

Some of the research topics we are excited about at the moment:

· Plantoids: Can we use mechanics to reprogramme plant cells, e.g. to engineer their identity or cell division patterning, to advance plant tissue engineering?

· Extreme MechanoBio: How do pathogens break through the mechanical defenses of a plant, and how do plants defended themselves, to develop new crop protection strategies?

· Feel the Force: How do plant cells perceive mechanical forces and convert these into cellular responses, for example during pollination?

· Nuclear mechanics: Can the plant cell nucleus act as an intrinsic mechanosensor to regulate gene expression patterns under stress?

· See the Force: Can we develop new nanotechnologies to visualise mechanical patterns in living and growing plants using non-invasive imaging methods?

· Catch and Release: How do mechanical proteins (“catch bonds”) convert mechanical signals into rapid cytoskeletal mechano-adaptations?