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Int J Dev Biol. 2006;50(2-3):255-66.

Mechanical control of tissue morphogenesis during embryological development.

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  • 1Vascular Biology Program, Departments of Pathology and Surgery, Children's Hospital and Harvard Medical School, Boston, MA 02115, USA.


Twenty years ago, we proposed a model of developmental control based on tensegrity architecture, in which tissue pattern formation in the embryo is controlled through mechanical interactions between cells and extracellular matrix (ECM) which place the tissue in a state of isometric tension (prestress). The model proposed that local changes in the mechanical compliance of the ECM, for example, due to regional variations in basement membrane degradation beneath growing epithelium, may result in local stretching of the ECM and associated adherent cells, much like a "run-in-a-stocking". Cell growth and function would be controlled locally though physical distortion of the associated cells, or changes in cytoskeletal tension. Importantly, experimental studies have demonstrated that cultured cells can be switched between different fates, including growth, differentiation, apoptosis, directional motility and different stem cell lineages, by modulating cell shape. Experiments in whole embryonic organ rudiments also have confirmed the tight correlation between basement membrane thinning, cell tension generation and new bud and branch formation during tissue morphogenesis and that this process can be inhibited or accelerated by dissipating or enhancing cytoskeletal tension, respectively. Taken together, this work confirms that mechanical forces generated in the cytoskeleton of individual cells and exerted on ECM scaffolds, play a critical role in the sculpting of the embryo.

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