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Developing 3D Sensors To Measure Forces in and around Living Tissue

As we grow from a fertilized egg into a human being, our cells push and pull on one another, shaping our tissues, our organs, our bones, and our bodies. Unfortunately we don’t know much about how these microscopic forces, both within and between cells, allow large multi-cellular structures (like people) to develop.

Now, three scientists participating in an innovative research program have proposed an approach for measuring how the forces exerted by individual cells are able to mold bodily tissues into the desired three-dimensional shape.

Justin B. Kinney (Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory); M. Lisa Manning (Syracuse University); and Margaret Gardel (University of Chicago) plan to construct small ``nanoprobes’’ out of DNA that can be inserted into developing tissues. These probes will then record the forces that different cells experience at different moments in time.

Currently there are methods for measuring the forces in tissues along two-dimensional surfaces. This new proposal, however, promises to enable such measurements in three dimensions. This would provide a critical advance for understanding how three-dimensional structures, such as organs, are formed.  The trio will use the data this new method will produce to build 3D computational models that, guided by principles from theoretical physics, will provide insights into the process of tissue morphogenesis.

The idea for this project took shape in March during an intensive three-day conference at Biosphere 2 north of Tucson, Arizona. This conference was part of a two-year Scialog program entitled “Molecules Come to Life,” sponsored by the Research Corporation for Science Advancement (RCSA) and the Gordon and Betty More Foundation. The aim of this program is to bring scientists from a variety of disciplines spanning physics, biology, and chemistry, and to sponsor new ideas that come out of this interaction.

This Scialog program focuses on such questions as, what are the fundamental principles that make a collection of molecules within a cell produce behaviors that we associate with life? How do molecules combine and dynamically interact to form functional units in cells, and how do cells themselves interact to form more complex lifeforms?

“Scialog aims to encourage collaborations between theorists and experimentalists,” said RCSA Program Director Richard Wiener. “And, we encourage approaches that are driven by theory and coarse-grained modeling, that are testable by experiments.”

The next Molecules Come to Life Scialog conference will be held in March 2016. 

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