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  • Writer's pictureFengzhu Xiong

Funded summer student projects available!

We are happy to announce two summer student placements generously supported by the Centre of Physical Biology - note that non-Cambridge students can also apply!



Mechanical forces tuning tissue compartmentalization during early avian development

Lead Supervisors: Dr. Fengzhu Xiong and Dr. Lakshmi Balasubramaniam, Gurdon Institute


Embryonic development is a robust process where cells move to precise locations thereby building an organism's structure. Early avian embryos emerge from a disc-like tissue containing 2 main compartments: the inner epiblast and the outer extra-embryonic tissue. Cells comprising these tissues change shape, size and position as development progresses, transforming constituent cells into different cell types that shape the embryo body plan. They also experience various physical forces as they undergo these transitions.

Through this project, our aim is to understand how migratory properties of the epiblast and extra-embryonic tissues are guided by their state, interactions with their neighbours and the underlying substrate. In addition, we are also interested in understanding how this behaviour is guided by differences in their mechanical properties through a combination of experimental and theoretical modelling. Experimentally, we will be using live imaging to track collective cell migration. We will also use various tools such as traction force microscopy, tissue force microscopy and FLIM to characterize tissue tension and tissue material properties. Using this information, in collaboration with theoreticians we would be able to generate an in-silico model that can recapitulate our experimental observations of cell migration. In addition, through the model we aim to get testable experimental predictions to further our understanding of tissue tension and cell migration during early embryonic development.

Key aims/ tasks of the project: 1. Live imaging of cellular and Extra-Cellular Matrix (ECM) dynamics under different perturbations and conditions 2. Image analysis of cell migration to get information on cell shapes and their trajectories 3. Optimizing force measurement techniques such as traction force and microfabricating confinement conditions to understand the how forces affect embryo development 4. Work with theoreticians to develop physical models testing the relation between cell migration and cellular interactions



Exploring the dynamics of coral-algae symbiosis under changing physical conditions

Lead Supervisors: Dr. Susie McLaren, Gurdon Institute and Dr. Ben Jenkins, Department of Biochemistry


A symbiotic relationship between corals and algae underpins coral reef ecosystems, with both partners providing each other with a stable source of nutrients (1). Breakdown of this relationship, known as coral ‘bleaching’, is responsible for the collapse of these ecosystems and results from changes in physical conditions such as temperature increase (2).

The cellular mechanisms responsible for regulating this symbiotic interaction, including its maintenance and breakdown, are not known. In order to uncover these mechanisms a framework is required that allows us to quantitatively assess symbiont cell dynamics within the host organism in response to finely controlled changes in physical parameters. We have preliminary live imaging data demonstrating that symbiont cell dynamics in response to physical changes can be tracked in the coral model Aiptasia (3). Using this approach as a starting point, you will have the opportunity to test how changing physical conditions drive the breakdown of symbiosis (bleaching events) and develop a framework to explore the cellular mechanisms that underpin this.

Key aims of the project: 1. Develop an imaging pipeline to generate a novel dataset on symbiont cell dynamics under controlled physical conditions 2. Image analysis to quantify temporal and spatial changes in symbiont numbers in response to physical perturbations e.g. using machine learning-based segmentation 3. Compare tolerance of wildtype vs mutant host-symbiont relationships to a changing physical environment

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