Purdue University

Mugler Group

Research

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Cells perform computations using networks of interacting molecules. It is tempting to think of these networks like electronic circuits, but in reality their components are under vastly different physical constraints. Molecules in cells are produced and destroyed at random times, are subject to large fluctuations in their numbers, and must execute random walks through crowded environments in order to interact. How can anything reliable be computed under such conditions?

The Mugler Group aims to answer this question using a wide range of theoretical and computational tools, including stochastic modeling, information theory, particle-based simulation, statistical physics, and even quantum field theory. We are tackling problems that range from the molecular to the multicellular level, often in collaboration with experimental groups, with the goal to create a better understanding of biological systems and help combat diseases such as cancer. 

communication

Collective sensing by communicating cells
Cells from bacteria to amoebae to human tissue use cell-to-cell communication to coordinate behavior. One of the most important behaviors for cells is sensing chemicals in their environment. In collaboration with experimentalists, we are finding that cells use communication to make sensing more precise. For example, clusters of cells use communication to detect shallower chemical gradients than single cells. Using tools from statistical physics, we are developing a unified theory of collective sensing.

See publications 22, 23, 27, and 30.

Collective migration

Collective migration and metastatic invasion
Metastasis is the deadliest stage of cancer. Metastasis begins when tumor cells invade the surrounding tissue. In many cancer types, invasion is collective, occuring via cell clusters instead of single cells. Collective invasion is one of many examples of coordinated cell migration. In collaboration with experimentalists, we are exploring collective migration using theory, simulation, and microfluidic experiments. We aim to provide a physical understanding of collective migration, as well as advance our grasp on processes that allow cancer to grow and spread.

See publications 24, 28, and 33.

Calcium signaling

Effects of communication on dynamic responses
Cells encode environmental stimuli using internal responder molecules. What happens when a responder molecule is also the mediator of cell-to-cell communication? Are cells responding to the environment, to each other, or both? In collaboration with experimentalists, we are exploring this question in the context of collective calcium signaling in fibroblast populations.

See publications 29 and 31.