Tom Duke


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  • Physical basis of hearing
  • Self-organization of the cytoskeleton
  • Cell motility
  • Signal transduction mechanisms
  • Neural networks
  • Bionanotechnology

Research interests

My research concerns the physical modelling of biological systems, typically at the cellular or supramolecular level, together with some more applied work in bionanotechnology. Topics of current interest include the active mechanism of sound detection in the inner ear, the organization of cytoskeletal filaments in growing cells, mechanisms of cell motility, and information processing in networks of neurons.

Other activities

  • Adjunct Associate Editor, Physical Review Letters.
  • Editorial Board, Physical Biology

Research highlight
Cells are squeezed out of overcrowded tissue - Nature, April 2012

Recent publications

  • D. S. Bassettt, A. Meyer-Lindenberg, S. Achard et al., "Adaptive reconfiguration of fractal small-world human brain functional networks," Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America 103 (51), 19518-19523 (2006).
  • B. Windisch, D. Bray, and T. Duke, "Balls and chains - A mesoscopic approach to tethered protein domains," Biophysical Journal 91 (7), 2383-2392 (2006).
  • A. Vilfan and T. Duke, "Frequency Clustering in Spontaneous Otoacoustic Emissions from a Lizard's Ear," Biophysical Journal 95 (10), 4622-4630 (2008).
  • Y. Asano, A. Jimenez-Dalmaroni, T. B. Liverpool et al., "Pak3 inhibits local actin filament formation to regulate global cell polarity," Hfsp Journal 3 (3), 194-203 (2009).
  • P. E. Vertes and T. Duke, presented at the 18th Annual Computational Neuroscience Meeting, Berlin, GERMANY, 2009 (unpublished).


  • BA (natural sciences), University of Cambridge (1986)
  • PhD (theoretical physics). University of Cambridge (1989)
  • 1990-1992: Marie Curie Fellow, ESPCI, Paris
  • 1993-1995: Research Staff Member & Lecturer, Princeton University
  • 1995-2002: Royal Society University Research Fellow, University of Cambridge
  • 1996: Visiting Scientist, University of Strasbourg
  • 1998: Visiting Professor, Niels Bohr Institute
  • 1999: Visiting Scientist, Institut Curie1998-2007: Fellow and Lecturer in Physics, Trinity College, Cambridge
  • 2002-2007: Lecturer, then Reader in Biological Physics, University of Cambridge
  • 2007-present: Professor of Physics, UCL

Selected research

The main focus of hearing research in recent years has been the nature of the active process that enhances sound detection in the inner ear. We have advanced the general concept of self-tuned criticality to explain how the active system works. The cochlea contains a set of force-generating dynamical systems, each of which is maintained at the threshold of an oscillatory instability by feedback control. Poised at the critical point, on the verge of vibrating, each oscillator is especially responsive to periodic disturbances at its own characteristic frequency. The active amplification provided by the set of critical oscillators is ideally suited to the ear's needs, since it provides frequency selectivity, exquisite sensitivity and a wide dynamic range.

Recent experiments on the amphibian hair cells have demonstrated that their mechanosensory apparatus – the hair bundles - oscillate actively and respond to stimuli as predicted by this general model.

Sound entering the mammalian cochlea generates a wave that carries energy to a particular, frequency-dependent place. The nonlinear properties of this wave can be understood by positing that the motion of the cochlear partition is driven by a set of critical oscillators, whose characteristic frequencies decrease from base to apex.