Contera Lab

Clarendon Laboratory

Physics Department, University of Oxford, Clarendon Lab, Parks Road, Oxford, OX1 3PU

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Our main interest is the role of mechanics  in connecting the molecular (nanometre) level with the cellular (micron) and tissue  (mm-cm-m) scales in biology, and in the emergence of the multiple time scales that orchestrate biological processes. Our expertise is on measuring time dependent mechanical properties in biological systems from single molecules , to live cells, tissues and living organisms.

More recently we have become interested in the coupling of mechanical and electrical properties in biology, and in investigating how mechano-electricity is used to transmit information across scales .

Our main and most loved tool is the atomic force microscope -the AFM. We use AFM for quantitative studies of structures, interfaces, magnetic and electrical properties, and quantitative time dependent viscoelastic properties mapping. 

We also like to use artificial nanostructured materials
 to understand biological problems and the other way around: to learn from biology to create new bioinspired materials and applications.

We work at the interface of physics, biology and nanotechnology. We like converging technologies and to live at the interface of disciplines.

We believe in the transformative  intellectual, cultural and technological value of studying biology within the realm of physics.

More here.

Current projects:

Electrophysiological-mechanical coupled pulses in neural membranes: a new paradigm for clinical therapy of SCI and TBI
Zeinab A. R.
Funded by EPSRC.

aims at developing and utilising state-of-the-art modelling approaches for the study of electrophysiological and mechanical coupling in a healthy and mechanically damaged axon, nerve and, eventually, spinal cord and brain white-matter tract. With Prof Antoine Jerusalem (Engineering Science Oxford) Two teams of clinical project partners in Oxford and Cambridge will participate in the analysis of the results for direct applications in a clinical setting. The clinical support for the research at Oxford will be provided by Dr Damian Jenkins and Mr Tim Lawrence of Oxford University Hospitals NHS Foundation Trust. Neuropulse also colaborates with Prof Ari Ercole  and Prof David Menon (Cambridge Neuroscience)
In vivo multiscale viscoelastic properties of the plant cell wall: looking at  the plant cell wall from polymer physics

Collaboration with Ian Moore
( Oxford Plant Sciences) and Antoine Jerusalem(Oxford Engineering Science)
Funded by the Leverhulme Trust
and  BBSRC

Jacob Seifert

Postdoctoral Research Associate (BBSRC)

Magnetically controlled nanostructured materials for biomedical applications

Andrea Bonilla
Funded by CONACYT

Electromechanical coupling in tissues.

Collaboration with Prof Sarah Waters, Oxford Mathematical Institute

Casey Adam,
 Systems Biology DTC

Multiscale mechanical properties of tissues and tissue engineering constructs for diagnostic applications.
Alba  Rosa Piacenti
Funded by EPSRC
Physics of the cryopreservation of cell membranes


Rebecca Vaughan and Wuyi  Shen


Some of our work in the past includes:


Linking mechanics, interfaces, function and cooperativity of membrane proteins using AFM, nanoindentation and High-speed AFM 

We  have used the AFM to directly quantify the mechanical properties of artificial (Zhou Nanoscale 2015)  and native membranes (Voitchovsky Biophys J 2006) using AFM-nanoindentation. 

We have been able to relate the mechanical properties of a single membrane protein to its local interface properties(Contera Nanoscale 2010) ,

We have observed the dynamics of a single bacteriorhodopsin protein undergoing the photocycle in real time  using high-speed AFM (Voitchovsky Soft Matter 2009); and observed the dynamics of individual proteins in a native purple membrane ( Yamashita J Struct Biol 2009). Our experiments demonstrate  mechanical cooperative coupling  bewteen individual bacteriorhodopsin proteins within trimers,  and  between trimers comprising native  purple membranes. (Voitchovsky Soft Matter 2009)

Using a quantitative method to determine solid-liquid adhesion energy with sub-nm resolution (Voitchovsky Nature Nanotechnology 2010) we also managed to quantify the complex interplay between mechanics and electrostatics at the interface of purple membrane  (Contera  and Voitchovsky Nanoscale 2010).

Nanometer resolution fast mapping of mechanical properties of living cells

Using multifrequency AFM we were able to quantitatively map the nanomechanical viscoelastic properties of living cells and tissues with unprecedented speed and accuracy (Raman Nature Nanotechnology 2011) Using multifrequency  AFM techniques we assess the local elastic and viscous properties of cells, tissues and living organisms


Other recent work includes

full Effect of fullerenes on the mechanical properties of cell membranes (Zhou Nanoscale 2015)
The subnanoscale free volume and mechanical properties of hydrogels (chitosan) and the effect of hydrophobic and hydrophilic carbon nanotubes on the hydrogel capacity for transporting molecules such as glucose and oxygen. (Axpe J Mat Chem 2015)

We have also contributed to the development of  a novel diamagnetic trap (Nyugen RSC Advances 2016): demonstrating, for the first time, confinement of the orientation of micron-sized graphitic flakes to a well-defined plane. We orient and rotationally trap lipid-coated highly ordered pyrolytic graphite (HOPG) micro-flakes in aqueous solution using a combination of uniform magnetic and AC electric fields and exploiting the anisotropic diamagnetic and electrical properties of HOPG. This work was led by Isabel Llorente Garcia (UCL Physics)


Publications, here.



Current members:


Zeinab A. R, POSTDOC . Funded by the NEUROPULSE project in collaboration with Antoine Jerusalem in Engineering

Ileana Andrea Bonilla Brunner, DPhil student funded by CONACYT. Physical aspects of biomimetic drug delivery.

Jacob Seifert, POSTDOC (BBSRC). Plant cell wall mechanics, Cosupervised with Ian Moore in Oxford Plant Sciences

Alba Rosa Piacenti  DPhil

Casey Adam, DPhil

Rebecca Vaughan MPhys student

Wuyi Shen, MPhys student

Anna Wald MPhys student

Olivia Ghosh, visiting student from Columbia University New York

Dr Isabel Llorente-Garcia academic visitor from UCL Physics

Sonia Contera. PI



Previous Members include:

Michael Lherbette, Jemma Brown (MPhys), Prof Javier Garcia Martinez (visiting from U de Alicante, Oxford Martin School Fellow), Kislon Voitchovsky, Hilary Hamnett, Amadeus Stevenson, Mar Alvarez (visiting), Eneko Axpe (visiting from UPC-EHU), Arvind Raman (Visiting Wadham College Keeley Fellow), Maria de Santo (FP7), Alessandra Apicella, Jihan Zhou (CSC), Chikara Dohno (visiting from Sanken, Osaka University), Shingo Makishi, Andrea Ancona, Loic Bugnicourt, Charlie Daniels, Ryota Hayashui (from Osaka Unviersity funded by JSPS), Einar Bui Magnusson, Armando Mendez (University Nuevo Leon, funded by CONACYT), Kaho Kamada, visiting SANKEN, Osaka University, Laura Santana (Oxford DTP student), Calum Gabbutt (now in UCL)


Oxford Martin Programme on Nanotechnology


Webcasts, videos, talks,books, etc. here.




International Brain Mechanics and Trauma Lab

JSPS Core to Core Programme for Next Generation Sensor Devices for a Healthier, Safer Society

Oxford Martin School

Oxford Solid Mechanics



Current Collaborators

Prof Antoine Jerusalem, Oxford Department of Engineering Science through NEUROPULSE, EPSRC project.

Prof Sarah Waters, Oxford Mathematical Institute

Dr. Salvador Pane, Institute of Robotics and Intelligent Systems (IRIS) 
Swiss Federal Institute of Technology (ETH) Zurich 

Prof Cathy Ye, Oxford Biomedical Engineering

Prof Ian Moore, Oxford Plant Sciences though Leverhulme Trust project,a and BBSRC

Prof Kazukiko Matsumoto. SANKEN, Osaka University. Graphene based biosensing

Dr Isabel Llorente (UCL) in micro and nanomanipulation of carbon nanoparticles in solution

Dr Chikara Dohno from SANKEN, Osaka University, DNA nanostructures on lipid bilayers.



Some examples of media coverage and contributions to the general press

 six elmundo

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