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Biological systems display a rich phenomenology of states that resemble the physical states of matter - solid, liquid and gas. These phases result from the interactions between the microscopic constituent components - the cells - that manifest in macroscopic properties such as fluidity, rigidity and resistance to changes in shape and volume. Looked at from such a perspective, phase transitions from a rigid to a flowing state or vice versa define much of what happens in many biological processes especially during early development and diseases such as cancer. Additionally, collectively moving confluent cells can also lead to kinematic phase transitions in biological systems similar to multi-particle systems where the particles can interact and show sub-populations characterised by specific velocities. In this Perspective we discuss the similarities and limitations of the analogy between biological and inert physical systems both from theoretical perspective as well as experimental evidence in biological systems. In understanding such transitions, it is crucial to acknowledge that the macroscopic properties of biological materials and their modifications result from the complex interplay between the microscopic properties of cells including growth or death, neighbour interactions and secretion of matrix, phenomena unique to biological systems. Detecting phase transitions in vivo is technically difficult. We present emerging approaches that address this challenge and may guide our understanding of the organization and macroscopic behaviour of biological tissues. © 2022. The Author(s).


Pierre-François Lenne, Vikas Trivedi. Sculpting tissues by phase transitions. Nature communications. 2022 Feb 03;13(1):664

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PMID: 35115507

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