The boundary between biology and technology blurs further and further as researchers discover more and more parallels between the two. Today they have found that it’s relatively simple to essentially hack living tissue by programming a pattern into cells, making them grow and fold on their own into shapes like bowls, coils, and boxes.
You can see some of the results in the image above: notice how for instance the object on the lower right naturally folds itself, flat pack style, into a cube.
Building bio-compatible machines from living cells is an idea that’s been pursued for many years, but often the way tissue is made to form a shape is by restricting its growth with a mold or essentially 3D printing it by laying down the tissue bit by bit.
This technique is different, allowing the cells to grow more or less as normal, but uses a technique called DNA-programmed Assembly of Cells (DPAC) to guide that growth. The cells themselves develop normally — the programmed DNA isn’t in the cells themselves, but rather is laid down in a sort of template that causes them to organize differently.
(A diagram from the paper shows how a pattern laid down before development produces a predictable folding structure)
The DNA patterns result in layers of tissue growing that naturally curve and fold in whatever way the researchers choose.
“It was astonishing to me about how well this idea worked and how simply the cells behave,” said Zev Gartner, one of the authors of the paper, in a news release accompanying it. “Development is starting to become a canvas for engineering, and by breaking the complexity of development down into simpler engineering principles, scientists are beginning to better understand, and ultimately control, the fundamental biology.”
As often turns out to be the case, it’s better to work with nature than against it; by coaxing the cells to do what they do naturally, the results are not only more predictable but simpler to achieve. The technique could eventually be used in the process of creating biological machines and structures in medicine.
The team is based out of UC San Francisco, and their paper was published in the journal Developmental Cell.