Crick researchers to study the ‘physics of life’

Francis Crick Institute group leaders Andreas Schaefer and James Briscoe will begin two new studies aimed at transforming our understanding of life, by bringing together innovative approaches in life sciences and physics.

Our strategy to pursue discovery without boundaries means embracing new ideas and fostering collaboration between scientists from different disciplines.
Paul Nurse

The projects are funded by a £18 million investment from UK Research and Innovation (UKRI) and Wellcome, through the Physics of Life Strategic Priorities Fund, a unique approach harnessing physics approaches to tackle grand challenges in the life sciences.

Andreas Schaefer, who leads the Crick’s Sensory Circuits and Neurotechnology Laboratory, is teaming up with researchers at the European Synchrotron Radiation Facility. Together they have been awarded £2million to apply the latest synchrotron X-ray microscopy, electron microscopy, and in vivo imaging technologies, to determine how the brain’s circuitry works in practice.

The mammalian brain is one of the most complex structures known to humankind. Understanding how it processes information is a prerequisite for understanding conditions such as psychiatric diseases as well as for building advanced artificial intelligence, but is hampered by the challenging nature of measuring what is going on inside the brain.

“Recent technological advancements have transformed our ability to study neural circuits in the brain,” says Andreas. “We are starting to build a more detailed map of the billions of interactions within the brain and their consequences, whether that’s an action, a thought, or even a memory.

“There are so many opportunities for innovation at the interface of physics and biology and we’re excited to collaborate with new colleagues, bringing different expertise and insight which will very extremely valuable to our work.”

neuruloid – embryonic tissue produced by human embryonic stem cells

Image of a neuruloid – embryonic tissue produced by human embryonic stem cells. The cells spontaneously organise into different regions of tissues. Red cells are mesoderm, the tissue that will eventually form muscles, skeleton, and blood; Cyan are neural cells that will make the spinal cord.

James Briscoe, head of the Crick’s Developmental Dynamics Laboratory, is part of a team comprising of researchers from UCL and the University of Warwick. They have been awarded £1million to determine how cells choreograph their movements and choose their identity during early development.

They want to understand how the shape and structure of different tissues arise as organisms develop. The answer to this question has profound implications for our understanding of how our bodies are shaped, which could help with the development of future treatments such as regenerative medicine and tissue engineering. 

"Human development is complex and finely balanced,” says James. “We need to understand how the right types of cells are produced in the right place, at the right time and in the right amounts

“With the ability to reverse engineer developmental processes, we can use new technologies to look back in time and understand how different parts of the body originate. And we might even find ways to reverse or treat conditions that occur when these processes go wrong.”

Science Minister George Freeman said: “One of the unique strengths of the UK science ecosystem, and our new research agency UKRI is the ability to bring different sciences together - to unlock new discoveries and solve the big challenges of our day. 

“From new carbon capturing algae to mapping brain functions, the Physics of Life programme is funding exciting new approaches with potentially major societal benefits.”

Paul Nurse, director of the Crick, said: “Our strategy to pursue discovery without boundaries means embracing new ideas and fostering collaboration between scientists from different disciplines. These new studies are great examples of multidisciplinary science, helping us address fundamental questions about human health and disease.”

Crick scientists have now successfully secured funding through both Physics of Life calls, highlighting the multidisciplinary nature of research at the institute. In 2019, Crick group leaders Guillaume Salbreux and Axel Behrens, along with Chris Dunsby from Imperial College London, were awarded £2m to analyse the fundamental cellular processes that underlie how normal and breast cancer organoids (3D masses of cells grown in the lab from stem cells) self-organise.

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