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Survival under pressure: how cells adapt to mechanical stress

Volkswagen Foundation provides €1.5 million to support an international research project at the interface between cell biology, evolution and materials science



Life on Earth began with single-celled organisms. The first multicellular organisms originated around 600 million years ago and with them the basis for the diversity of plant and animal life we see today. However, what enabled this transition from single-cell to multicellular organisms is as yet largely unknown. The influence of mechanical forces has undergone minimal investigation to date: multicellular organisms are subject to significantly greater stress than single-celled organisms. A research project by scientists at Kiel University (CAU), the University of Münster (WWU) and Cornell University, USA, is investigating how cells have learned to adapt to mechanical stress to avoid damage during the course of evolution. By decoding this fundamental principle of life, the research team also hopes to make new findings about diseases. The Volkswagen Foundation is supporting the interdisciplinary project at the interface between cell biology, evolution and materials science with €1.5 million over the next five years.


How mechanical forces affect cells

Every time we lift something or move, we place stress on our muscles. They generate enormous mechanical forces that also affect the cells within the muscle tissue. Mechanical pressure on cells also plays a role in illnesses: genetic mutations that alter the mechanical load-bearing capacity of cells can, for example, lead to muscle weakness (muscular dystrophy) and heart disease.

The fact that cells react to mechanical influences is nothing new in research. At the interface between biology and engineering, mechanobiology investigates the mechanical properties of cells and the physical forces at work there. In order to avoid damage, cells adapt to altered conditions and strengthen their adhesion to a surface, for example. However, the molecular mechanisms behind this are still a mystery. The partners in this newly launched research project hope to make new findings by observing evolution as the driving force behind these processes. 

Mechanobiological adaptation processes: central development step for multicellular life?

“We suspect that multicellular life forms developed special structures at the cell surface and in the cell nucleus during the transition from single-celled organisms, which enabled them to survive under mechanical pressure,” says project coordinator Christine Selhuber-Unkel, CAU Professor at the Institute for Materials Science, describing a key hypothesis of the project. The research team hopes to be able to prove that such mechanical adaptation processes are a central development step for multicellular life. “However, there are not yet any special methods to provide such evidence. Closing this gap and developing our own technologies is a central part of this project,” says Carsten Grashoff, Professor for Quantitative Cell Biology at the University of Münster (WWU). To do this, the team wants to combine cellular biological, biophysical and materials science procedures. In addition to the cellular adaptation strategies that have possibly emerged during the course of evolution, they are also interested in how the mechanical forces in single-celled and multicellular organisms differ and how they are transferred from the surface of the cells to their nucleus.

‘Fast-forwarding and rewinding’ evolution

During the project at the CAU, Professor Selhuber-Unkel wants to artificially reproduce cell environments with special materials. Using these, it should be possible to exert targeted mechanical forces on cells. Biophysicist Professor Grashoff works at WWU Münster on microscopy methods for measuring these forces at molecular level. Jan Lammerding, Professor for Cellular Mechanobiology at Cornell University in the US, develops fluorescent ‘reporter’ cells that can indicate mechanical damage in the cell tissue.

Subsequently, the research team plans to genetically activate protective structures in single-celled organisms or deactivate them in multicellular organisms and to observe the respective effects on the mechanical stress on the cells. “By ‘fast-forwarding and rewinding’ evolution in this way, we hope to find experimental evidence for the influence of mechanical adaptation strategies on the development of multicellular life,” says Professor Lammerding.

Driving a new field of research

With this project, the interdisciplinary research team also hopes to contribute to the general understanding of how multicellular organisms develop. “Bringing mechanical aspects into evolutionary research is completely new. With this project, we also want to push ahead in a new field of research and establish the strategically important networks it requires,” says Professor Selhuber-Unkel. In doing this, they also wish to cooperate with evolutionary biologists from the Kiel Evolution Center (KEC) at Kiel University. A symposium is planned in around two years in order to bring together scientists from different disciplines and strengthen exchange at the interface between mechanobiology and evolution.

© privat

Project coordination Professorin Dr. Christine Selhuber-Unkel, Institute for Materials Science, Kiel University

© WWU/Knieriemen

Prof. Dr. Carsten Grashoff, Institute for Molecular Cell Biology, The University of Münster

© Cornell University

Prof. Dr.-Ing. Jan Lammerding, Department of Biomedical Engineering, Cornell University, USA


The research initiative ‘Life? – A Fresh Scientific Approach to the Basic Principles of Life’ by the Volkswagen Foundation supports innovative projects at the interface between the natural and life sciences seeking to better understand the fundamental principles of life.

More information


Prof. Dr. Christine Selhuber-Unkel
Kiel University
Institute for Materials Science
Biocompatible Nanomaterials working group
+49 431 880-6198


Prof. Dr. Carsten Grashoff
The University of Münster
Institute for Molecular Cell Biology
Quantitative Cell Biology working group
+49 251 83-23920


Prof. Dr. Jan Lammerding
Cornell University
Weill Institute for Cell & Molecular Biology
Meinig School of Biomedical Engineering


Julia Siekmann
Science Communication Officer, Research area Kiel Nano Surface and Interface Sciences