▸ Research


Biophysics of Multi-Cellular Patterns - - - Interactive Biotechnology


We are fascinated by the self-organization of multi-cellular morphologies and patterns at microscopic scales, such as in early development, protist swarms, or bacterial biofilms. (1) We study the biophysical principles underlying these phenomena with a combination of quantitative imaging, synthetic biology, and modeling. (2) We develop devices and user interfaces that enable a tangible interactive experience with such systems, a new field that we term "Interactive Biotechnology," i.e., we add a new dimension to the traditionally observational microscopy.
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The collective spatiotemporal dynamics of many cells constitute a generalized form of spatial / distributed / amorphous computing, where the individual units, i.e., the cells, are powerful “machines” that differentiate, move, divide, communicate, die, morph, synthesize, and more.


If we take the notion of “multi-cellular computation” seriously (and take some inspiration from electronics), the following questions spring to mind:

  • What are the biophysical algorithms?
  • What are the properties of the biophysical hardware?
  • What is the equivalent of the personal computer?
  • How would humans interact with such computers?
  • How could these computing devices be used to solve human challenges?

A potential manifestation of such a computer contains multiple living cells that interact with each other, and where a human can stimulate these cells in a closed feedback loop to change their spatiotemporal collective dynamics. As for conventional computers, such interactions enable free exploration, programming, research, play, and much more.



Interactions with electronic devices have become ubiquitous over the past 50 years. How will interactive biotic devices (‘biotic computers’) revolutionize the next 50 years?



(1) We develop devices and user interfaces for interactive biotechnology, i.e., two-way interactions between a macroscopic human and microscopic cells are enabled. Instantiations of such devices are cloud experimentation labs, museum exhibits, and biotic games (see publication section and video below for examples). We employ these devices to help solving significant social and scientific challenges such as enabling cloud experimentation for other researchers, online education with true lab components, learning analytics, and informal science education via games.


Our first biology cloud lab that enables multiple students in parallel to execute biology experiments over the web. We used this lab during a biophysics class, where students investigated the chemical responses of physarum. And the best thing: The robot is made from LEGO mindstorms - so build a cloud lab yourself! (Instructions are in the paper.)

We developed "TrapIt!" - and interactive system that enables the playful interaction with Euglena via artistic drawing on a touchscreen. Multiple museum studies demonstrated it's potential for informal science education.

A forerunner of our "trapIt!" system. In this paper we explored a much more zoomed out interaction with Euglena, providing a first hand experience on their collective behavior.

A talk Ingmar recently gave which captures our achievements and future visions in the fields of Interactive Biotechnology/ Human Biology Interaction.


Our first demonstration of ‘biotic games’, i.e., games that require biological process to run - and enable humans to interact with microscopic organisms (Riedel-Kruse et al. Lab Chip).



(2) We study the biophysics and algorithms of natural multi-cellular systems in early zebrafish development and biofilm formation combining experimental and theoretical approaches.


Embryonic development is one of the true master examples of how multi-cellular assemblies “compute” 3D structures, providing inspirations of algorithms for amorphous computing devices. We study zebrafish development and synthetic biofilm formation to gain conceptually deeper insights into the utility of entrained genetic oscillators and the properties of mechanical signals.


We combine a range of approaches such as molecular and cell biology, synthetic biology, imaging, instrumentation, theory and modeling, computer science and mobile interfaces and more. We work with different of organisms, i.e., zebrafish, physarum, e. coli, and euglena.


Stanford Bioengineering provides a stimulating environment for our interdisciplinary research program: We share an open lab space the Quake lab, and we closely collaborate with the labs of Rhiju Das (Biochemistry), Alex Dunn (Chemical Engineering), Paulo Blikstein (Education) and Daniel Schwartz (Education).


It is our long-term vision that every scientist and layperson has convenient access to interact with, explore, and utilize micro-biological systems (= Human Biology Interaction, HBI). The rapid advancements of biotechnology promises the enabling power. We see it is our mission to help conceptualize and pioneer this field.