M is for Mechanobiology

We are not made of jelly. Our cells are not formless blobs. Now that the dynamic information processes of biology are being viewed as solutions for engineering problems, the study of mechanobiology, how mechanical forces affect biological behavior, has emerged to suggest revolutionary possibilities. According to Don Ingber, biologist at Harvard Medical School Children’s Hospital, tensegrity, the shape-stabilizing structures made famous by Buckminster Fuller’s geodesic dome that balances compression with tension and yields to forces without breaking, is the guiding force of evolution, the architecture of life. Tensegrity gives cells their shape, as each cell has an inner-scaffolding or cytoskeleton, and what Ingber’s research has shown is that if you change the shape of the cell, you also change its biochemistry and genetic expression. This discovery, fundamental to medicine, is said to possibly cure diseases such as cancer considering that unlike normal cells, cancer cells don’t physically feel their neighbors and therefore keep growing. Instead of drugs, the aim of mechanobiology, with the interplay of physical and chemical sciences, is that medicine will be able to send the right set of signals that will revert the behavior of cancerous cells and form normal tissues. Moreover, considering that all cells, whether nerve, muscle, bone, etc., have distinct shapes, it’s believed that stem cells will no longer have to be grown in the lab, but given the right signal, those already in the body will come to the site and multiply to transform the damaged cell into the right pattern or structure. And, of course, there’s aging, considering wrinkles are old cells that can no longer hold shape-stability when the cytoskeleton loses its elasticity and becomes stiff. In the world of objects, we find that mechanobiology and the 1912 book by biologist and mathematician D’Arcy Thompson, “On Growth and Form,” that illustrates physical deformations such as the tensegral nature of bone cells subjected to forces over time, is the inspiration behind the now-leading trend of parametric design that uses generative computation enabling architectural “cells” to change shape to improve performance by creating structures that are natural and responsive. In fact, it’s been suggested that moving forward we will discover that tensegrity is all around us, present in the organic world for millions of years before there was any life at all, even the structure of black holes, galaxies and the universe itself.

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