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The Dynamics of Living Systems

Thomas Lecuit


Edith Heard
Traduction de Liz Libbrecht

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1Dear colleagues,
Ladies and gentlemen,
Dear Thomas,

2It is an immense pleasure for me to welcome you today to this new Chair, entitled “Dynamics of Living Systems”.

3The brilliant research that you have been conducting since the beginning of your career is at the cutting edge of developmental biology, cellular biology, and biophysics. It is characterized by your general and long-standing interest in morphogenesis, that is, the organization and dynamics of biological tissues. How does the morphogenesis of a tissue emerge from the dynamics of the cells constituting it and thus, from the mechanical forces they produce and from those to which they are in turn subjected? How do tissues remain structurally coherent and physiologically functional despite their profound remodelling when cells divide, die or move?

4Today, these old questions are emerging in a new light as, under the impetus of original research – of which you are one of the most outstanding representatives –, biology requires us to understand organisms not only as collections of interacting parts, but also as complex systems interacting with their environment.

5Understanding the emergence of form during development requires us to identify the genetic, biochemical and physical mechanisms that govern cell movement. Your work has thus contributed to the development of a new discipline that can be called “mechanobiology”, which seeks to understand how cells and tissues respond to the mechanical conditions of their environment. In close collaboration with physicists, you have contributed significantly to the understanding of mechanobiological processes. For instance, you have discovered that contractile forces are organized spatially and temporally at the cellular level, and thus govern the orientation and irreversibility of tissue remodelling. The body of your work illustrates how the organization of a biological system, at a given scale, emerges from dynamic interactions at lower scales. These dynamics follow one another like “Russian dolls” and involve multiple processes, with different levels of interaction between physical forces and biochemical processes, contributing to the emergence and maintenance of living systems.

6Thanks to your work, involving biologists and physicists, a general model of morphogenesis has even been proposed. Based on the physical concept of surface tension, this model articulates the separate but complementary roles of adhesion and mechanical tension at the cellular level. Hence, at all scales, a flow of information controls the internal dynamics of biological structures and thus orchestrates the morphogenetic processes of development.

7As an alumnus of the École Normale Supérieure, you have followed a brilliant international career: first a Master’s degree supervised by Claude Desplan at Rockefeller University (New York), then a PhD in 1998 at the European Molecular Biology Laboratory in Heidelberg, in Steve Cohen’s laboratory, followed by your post-doctoral training at Princeton with Eric Wieschaus, Nobel Prize Winner in Physiology and Medicine in 1995. Back in France in 2001, you moved to the Developmental Biology Institute of Marseille (IBDM), where you now head a team. With your boundless energy, you share your knowledge and enthusiasm for biology around the world, from Marseille to India – you lived for a year in Bangalore to broaden your horizons and collaboration –, or Santa Barbara, California, where you organized summer schools in biophysics at the renowned Kavli Institute.

8Lewis Wolpert, one of your heroes, I believe, said that the most important stage of life is neither birth nor marriage nor death, but the gastrulation of the embryo, during which the interplay of physical forces is essential. The analogy is worth what it is worth, but the step you are taking today remains of great symbolic significance in the life of a professor at the Collège de France. So, as we could sing to Lewis Wolpert on his birthday, “Happy Gastrulation”, dear Thomas, we can’t wait to hear you!

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