How cells sense their environment as they build tissue

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The formation of tissues and organs is one of the most important activities of cells in the embryonic stage of our life. To accomplish this highly complex task, cells need to communicate with each other. They use both biochemical and mechanical signals for this. You can see it as smell and touch.

Knowing how all this works not only teaches us more about fetal development and what can go wrong, but it’s also interesting knowledge for researchers looking at tissue repair and tissue culture in the lab. Mechanical inputs, for example subsurface structure and the presence of compressive forces or fluid flows, are of great importance for the behavior of cells. For example, it tells them when to divide, whether to move, and even what type of cell to become.

The way cells respond to mechanical signals has already been studied extensively in lab dishes, but scientists have now succeeded in studying this in a live embryo. They placed a magnetic droplet between the cells of the building and applied a tiny amount of pressure using a carefully controlled magnetic field. This way they can feel pushed back.

Among other things, what they can see with this is: what the cell is trying to sense in its environment. Individual cells are constantly testing the structure as a whole. Is it cruel? Are the cells closely packed together? This plays into their next move, which in turn affects the structure as a whole. Researchers are far from finished studying this interaction, but the fact that it can be studied at all, in living tissue, is already promising.

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Read more: A glimpse of the sense of touch in the cell.

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