Clifford P. Brangwynne

Photo of Clifford Brangwynne
Associated Faculty, Chemical and Biological Engineering
Hoyt Chemical Laboratory, 301

Research Focus

Biophysical approaches to understanding growth of RNA/protein assemblies, cells, and tissues

We are interested in understanding the physical principles underlying self-assembly of biological materials, including the cytoskeleton, sub-cellular organelles, cells, and tissues. Our research combines the tools of soft matter physics and molecular cell biology to understand the way in which the properties of biological materials play a role in fundamental biological processes, in particular embryonic development. To address these questions we work with the worm C. elegans, as well as the frog X. Laevis. We aim to ultimately use the understanding gained in these model organisms to develop self-assembling biomaterials for medical applications.

Patterning in Developing Embryos

Tissue patterning in early development is facilitated in part by asymmetric cell divisions, where a cell divides into two daughter cells that may be different in size, contain different molecular components, and ultimately give rise to different tissues in the adult organism. In C. elegans asymmetric divisions establish germ cells that will go on to form the reproductive gonad in the adult organism. As with many organisms, C. elegans germ cells contain RNA and protein rich germ granules ("P-granules") that are thought to play a role in keeping the germ cells in an un-differentiated stem-cell like state. P-granules localize within the cell cytoplasm in a complex process that relies on the formation of intracellular morphogen gradients that control P-granule assembly. The biophysical nature of these gradients, and the mechanism by which they control P granule stability, are still poorly understood.

Physical Properties and Function of RNA/Protein Bodies

Unlike conventional sub-cellular compartments such as vesicles, cells contain many compartments that form in the absence of membranes. These typically consist of assemblies of RNA and proteins, and include many cytoplasmic bodies such as P-granules. There are also many similar bodies within the nucleus, including Cajal bodies and nucleoli. We are interested in how these bodies form, how they carry out their biological functions, and the role their biophysical properties play. Together with the powerful genetics possible in the worm C. elegans, we also work with the large eggs of the frog X. Laevis.

Architecture and Dynamics of the Cytoskeleton

The cytoskeleton is a dynamic network of biopolymer filaments that plays a central role in many fundamental biological processes, including cell migration, cell division, and intracellular transport. We are interested in collective properties of the cytoskeleton, and the way in which these collective properties can function to spatially organize the cytoplasm of developing cells.