Major transformations of cells during embryonic development are traditionally associated with the activation or inhibition of genes and with protein modifications. The contributions of mechanical properties intrinsic to the matter an organism is made of, however, are often overlooked. The emerging field "physics of living matter" is addressing active material properties of the cytoskeleton and tissues like the spontaneous generation of stress, which may lead to shape changes and tissue flows, and their implications for embryonic development. Here, we discuss spontaneous mechanical oscillations to present some basic elements for understanding this physics, and we illustrate its application to developing embryos. We highlight the role of state diagrams to quantitatively probe the significance of the corresponding physical concepts for understanding development.
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