Medical Research Council - London Institute of Medical Sciences

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Using computer simulations to study the forces acting on cells during organ development

31 January 2019

Folding Under Pressure

When an embryo starts to form organs, groups of cells gather and fold into shape. This process is steered by a vast array of factors, from chemical signals to physical pressures, many of which we don’t fully understand. To bend into detailed forms, neighbouring cells must apply, and be subject to, forces in varied directions. Two types of asymmetry, or polarity, guide these interactions. To investigate just how significant these polarities are in relation to other factors, researchers developed computer simulations of cellular development when driven by this alone. Virtual cells with different characteristics produced different shapes, such as the organs pictured growing from 200 to 16,000 cells when cells rapidly divide under no pressure (left) or with external pressure applied (right). Peculiarities in cell polarity can lead to cancer, and this mathematical evidence that polarity alone can produce complex shapes may help decipher how and why that happens.

Written by Anthony Lewis

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