Scientists have successfully used light to fold epithelial tissue on demand. They’ve accomplished this through optogenetics – that is the insertion of genes that encode light sensitive proteins in to cells that would otherwise not react to light.
In so doing they’ve accomplished the decoupling of shape from function, which is good news for regenerative medicine. By folding any tissue in to a particular morphology using light it is much easier to replace malfunctioning tissue of identical shape and size.
The hope being that instead of growing entire organs or swathes of re-connective tissue and cutting them up in to pieces that “fit” you can now grow and fold exactly what you need for the procedure without risking unnecessary damage to the structural integrity of say collagen, in the case of arthritis.
Natural epithelial folding is the first stage of transition from an egg/sperm to something that vaguely resembles a fetus. It is the process coined “morphogenesis” by which cells combine to form an embryo and eventually particular subsets of tissue like bone, muscle skin etc.
Remarkably scientists have accomplished morphogenesis by using those same individuated cells and light alone
“We’ve uncoupled the link between the shape and function of a cell. This allows us to, for the first time, built tissues in certain shape without affecting the cell’s expertise.”
“The great thing about using optogenetics to guide morphogenesis is that it is a very precise technique,” says Emiliano Izquierdo, first author of the study. “We were able to define various shapes, and by alternating the timing and strength of illumination, we could control how far the cells folded inwards.”
Next steps will involve testing the same method on different types of tissue to see if this flexible “decoupling” of shape from function truly holds up under different scenarios.