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J Biomed Semantics. 2013 Oct 8;4(1):22. doi: 10.1186/2041-1480-4-22.

Functional tissue units and their primary tissue motifs in multi-scale physiology.

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Auckland Bioengineering Institute, University of Auckland, Symonds Street, Auckland 1010, New Zealand.



Histology information management relies on complex knowledge derived from morphological tissue analyses. These approaches have not significantly facilitated the general integration of tissue- and molecular-level knowledge across the board in support of a systematic classification of tissue function, as well as the coherent multi-scale study of physiology. Our work aims to support directly these integrative goals.


We describe, for the first time, the precise biophysical and topological characteristics of functional units of tissue. Such a unit consists of a three-dimensional block of cells centred around a capillary, such that each cell in this block is within diffusion distance from any other cell in the same block. We refer to this block as a functional tissue unit. As a means of simplifying the knowledge representation of this unit, and rendering this knowledge more amenable to automated reasoning and classification, we developed a simple descriptor of its cellular content and anatomical location, which we refer to as a primary tissue motif. In particular, a primary motif captures the set of cellular participants of diffusion-mediated interactions brokered by secreted products to create a tissue-level molecular network.


Multi-organ communication, therefore, may be interpreted in terms of interactions between molecular networks housed by interconnected functional tissue units. By extension, a functional picture of an organ, or its tissue components, may be rationally assembled using a collection of these functional tissue units as building blocks. In our work, we outline the biophysical rationale for a rigorous definition of a unit of functional tissue organization, and demonstrate the application of primary motifs in tissue classification. In so doing, we acknowledge (i) the fundamental role of capillaries in directing and radically informing tissue architecture, as well as (ii) the importance of taking into full account the critical influence of neighbouring cellular environments when studying complex developmental and pathological phenomena.

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