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On Mechanical Transitions in Biologically Motivated Soft Matter Systems


The notion of phase transitions as a characterization of a change in physical properties

pervades modern physics. Such abrupt and fundamental changes in the behavior of physical systems are evident in condensed matter system and also occur in nuclear and subatomic settings. While this concept is less prevalent in the field of biology, recent advances have pointed to its relevance in a number of settings. Recent studies have modeled both the cell cycle and cancer as phase transition in physical systems. In this dissertation we construct simplified models for two biological systems. As described by those models, both systems exhibit phase transitions.

The first model is inspired by the shape transition in the nuclei of neutrophils during differentiation. During differentiation the nucleus transitions from spherical to a shape often described as “beads on a string.” As a simplified model of this system, we investigate the spherical-to-wrinkled transition in an elastic core bounded to a fluid shell system. We find that this model exhibits a first-order phase transition, and the shape that minimizes the energy of the system scales as (µr 3 /κ).

The second system studied is motivated by the dynamics of globular proteins. These proteins may undergoes conformational changes with large displacements relative to their size. Transitions between conformational states are not possible if the dynamics are governed strictly by linear elasticity. We construct a model consisting of an predominantly elastic region near the energetic minimum of the system and a non-linear softening of the system at a critical displacement. We find that this simple model displays very rich dynamics include a sharp dynamical phase transition and driving-force-dependent symmetry breaking.

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