Why do things stick? The physics of adhesion and adsorption in biological systems

Karin Jacobs / Saarland University, Saarbrücken, Germany

April 18, 2024


"Sticking" is a sloppy description that does not include an explanation why two objects stay together. In biological systems, the terms adhesion, adsorption or "tethering" are used. However, when covalent or ionic bonds are not involved, attractive intermolecular forces are mainly responsible for “sticking”. In our experiments, we try to find the main players in the "zoo" of intermolecular forces in order to specifically influence the interactions. Bacterial interactions are a good example: How do bacteria adhere? How can adhesion be reduced or increased? Is a metal door handle better or worse than a plastic one? The main experimental method is "single-cell force spectroscopy", which uses an AFM to record force-distance curves with a single living bacterial cell as the probe. MC simulations help to interpret the curves. The findings have the potential to optimize oral hygiene practices, design bacteria-resistant surfaces and refine implant materials.


Karin Jacobs

is a physicist and her research subjects span from functionalizing surfaces and tailoring wetting properties to the analysis and control of adhesion and biofilm formation. She and her team try to identify general physical rules to explain biophysical phenomena, often in close collaboration with teams in microbiology or in theoretical physics. Karin studied physics at Constance University, Germany. Passing career stages as postdoc at the Max-Planck-Institute for Colloid and Interface Research in Berlin/Golm, research assistant at Ulm Universtiy, project leader at Bayer AG in Leverkusen and several stays abroad in Israel and Australia, she took up a chair in experimental physics at Saarland University in 2002. Since 2014, she is awarded a 3y-Fellow of the Leibniz-Institute for New Materials INM in Sarbrücken. She coordinated a priority program of the German Research Foundation DFG focussing on microfluidics and is panel and research member of the DFG collaborative research center SFB 1027, which is devoted to biophysical research topics. In April 2015, she was elected as a member of the Academy of Sciences and Literature | Mainz and in 2022, a member of the Göttingen Academy of Sciences. Since summer 2021, she also acts as Vice President of the German Science foundation.