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Kristian Franze

Kristian Franze

Professor of Neuronal Mechanics

Fellow of St. John's College

Kristian Franze is accepting applications for PhD students.

Office Phone: +44 (0)1223 3-33761

Research Interests

The mechanobiology of nervous system development and pathology

Key aspects in the development of the central nervous system (CNS) include the formation of neuronal axons, their subsequent growth and guidance through thick layers of nervous tissue, and the folding of the brain. All these processes involve motion and must thus be driven by forces. However, while our understanding of the biochemical and molecular control of these processes is increasing rapidly, the contribution of mechanics remains poorly understood.
Cell motion is also crucially involved in CNS pathologies such as foreign body reactions, in which activated glial cells migrate towards and encapsulate implants (e.g., electrodes), and the failing regeneration of neurons after CNS (e.g., spinal cord) injuries. Repair can currently not be promoted. So far, research has - without any major breakthrough - mainly focused on chemical signals impeding and promoting neuronal (re)growth.

We are taking a different, interdisciplinary approach and investigate how cellular forces, local cell and tissue compliance and cellular mechanosensitivity contribute to CNS development and disease. Methods we are exploiting include atomic force microscopy, traction force microscopy, custom-built simple and complex compliant cell culture substrates, optical microscopy including confocal laser scanning microscopy and cell biological techniques. We have shown, for example, that nervous tissue is mechanically highly heterogeneous. Furthermore, we found that neurons constantly exert forces on their environment and that both neurons and glial cells respond to mechanical cues such as tissue stiffness. Understanding how and when CNS cells actively exert forces and respond to their mechanical environment will shed new light on CNS development, and it could eventually lead to novel biomedical approaches to treat or circumvent pathologies that involve mechanical signalling.


Main sources of funding: ERC, BBSRC

Main collaborators

Christoph Ballestrem (Centre for Cell Matrix Research, University of Manchester)
Kevin Chalut (Physics and SCRI, Cambridge)
James Fawcett (Brain Repair Centre, Cambridge)
Malte Gather (Physics & Astronomy, University of St. Andrews)
Bill Harris (PDN, Cambridge)
Christine Holt (PDN, Cambridge)
Thora Karadottir (SCRI, Cambridge)
Giuliano Scarcelli (Wellman Center for Photomedicine, Harward Medical School, USA)


Mechanobiology Lectures in the Part II PDN/Zoology P9/M6 Cell Assembly and Interactions
Mathematical Biology (Part IA)
Comparative Vertebrate Biology (Part IB)
Veterinary Anatomy: Practicals (Part IA and IB)

Key Publications

Rheinlaender J, Dimitracopoulos A, Wallmeyer B, Kronenberg NM, Chalut KJ, Gather MC, Betz T, Charras G, Franze K: Cortical cell stiffness is independent of substrate mechanics. Nature Materials 19:10191025 (2020)

Jakobs MAH, Dimitracopoulos A, Franze K: KymoButler, a deep learning software for automated kymograph analysis. eLife 8:e42288 (2019)

Thompson AJ, Pillai EK, Dimov IB, Foster SK, Holt CE, Franze K: Rapid changes in tissue mechanics regulate cell behaviour in the developing embryonic brain. eLife 8:e39356 (2019)

Barriga EH, Franze K, Charras G, Mayor R: Tissue stiffening coordinates morphogenesis by triggering collective cell migration in vivo. Nature doi:10.1038/nature25742 (2018)

Moeendarbary E, Weber IP, Sheridan GK, Koser DE, Solemane S, Haenzie B, Bradbury EJ, Fawcett J, Franze K: The soft mechanical signature of glial scars in the central nervous system. Nature Communications 8:14787 (2017)

Koser DE, Thompson AJ, Foster SK, Dwivedy A, Pillai EK, Sheridan GK, Svoboda H, Viana M, Costa LdF, Guck J, Holt CE, Franze K: Mechanosensing is critical for axon growth in the developing brain. Nature Neuroscience 19(12):1592-1598 (2016)

MacDonald RB, Randlett O, Oswald J, Yoshimatsu T, Franze K*, Harris WA*: Muller Glia Provide Essential Tensile Strength to the Developing Retina. Journal of Cell Biology 210(7):1075-1083 (2015)

Pagliara S*, Franze K*, McClain CR, Wylde G, Fisher CL, Franklin RJM, Kabla AJ, Keyser UF, Chalut KJ: Auxetic nuclei in embryonic stem cells exiting pluripotency. Nature Materials 13:638-644 (2014)

Hardie RC and Franze K: Photomechanical responses in Drosophila photoreceptors. Science 338(6104):260-263 (2012)

Franze K, Grosche J, Skatchkov SN, Schinkinger S, Foja C, Schild D, Uckermann O, Travis K, Reichenbach A, Guck J: Müller cells are living optical fibers in the vertebrate retina. PNAS 104(20):8287-8292 (2007)

Plain English

Our brain is the most complex organ in our body.  How neurons know where to send their long extensions called 'axons' to connect to distant cells is currently still poorly understood.   To investigate how neuronal growth is controlled during embryonic development and after injury, we combine approaches from biophysics and engineering with state-of-the-art cell and molecular biology.  We are mainly interested in how the local stiffness of the surrounding tissue regulates neuronal behaviour, and how neurons sense the stiffness of their environment.  Discovering new mechanisms controlling neuronal growth may lead to novel strategies promoting neuronal regeneration after, for example, spinal cord injuries.