Contera Lab




In the 21st century biology is undergoing a profound transformation. The adequacy of the reductionist approach to explain life solely by the interations of its molecular actors (genes and proteins) is being challenged by a new generation  of scientists armed with the tools of physics who are embracing biology's emergent complexity in all its scales and manifestations.
In Contera Lab we are interested in the physics that allows biological systems to build organisms  from nanometre-sized molecules into cells, which are able to assemble into organs and tissues, and how biology transmits information accross temporal and spatial scales to create life.
Our particular interest is on mechanics, which is becoming a central topic of modern biological research: we are interested in how mechanics couples  with chemistry and electricity to create biological function. Much effort is being put on understanding biological elasticity, however biological systems are not purely elastic. The deviation of elasticity due to the capacity of biological matter to dissipate energy (viscosity) is the  central topic of our current research. The capacity to dissipate energy is central to the origin and the eveolution of life on Earth. Life can only occur out of thermodynamic equilibrium, energy must be dissipated so that the second law of thermodynamics is not violated. Fundamental life characteristics such as growth, and shape, are controlled by viscoelasticity (the combination of elastic and non-elastic, dissipative responses). We are building experimental tools that allow us to measure it and to refine existing physics theories.
Our main and most loved tool is the atomic force microscope, the AFM, because with it we can measure structures, and time dependent mechanics and other key characteristics of life with nanometre accuracy in living systems, immersed in water. More recently we have become interested in the coupling of mechanical and electrical properties in biology, and in investigating how mechano-electricity is used to transmit information across scales. We also like to use artificial nanostructured materials to understand biological problems and the other way around: to learn from biology to create new bioinspired materials and applications.   
We work at the interface of physics, biology and nanotechnology. We like converging technologies and to live at the interface of disciplines. We believe in the transformative  intellectual, cultural and technological value of studying biology within the framework of physics.
Sonia Contera, Oxford Physics. @SONIACONTERA