MechanoBiology: An Emerging Field of Biomedical Research

By: Annie Hu


You may have heard of the field of Biomechanics: the study of the structure, function, and motion of our biological systems. Biomechanics studies the physics and the movements of the body, and applies mechanical engineering principles to study the physiology of our cells, tissues, and organs. For example, take human movement, which is essentially the result of many interactions between our muscles, bones, ligaments, and joints. By analyzing and observing how forces play a role in how we move and their effects on our musculoskeletal system, we can observe common injuries and figure out new ways to modify or control the mechanical environment in order to allow for better treatments, rehabilitation, and prevention.


Image Credit: Annie Hu

We’ve only just scratched the surface of what Biomechanics is and its potential uses. But an emerging and perhaps less known field of biomedical and bioengineering research is that of MechanoBiology. While Biomechanics involves much of manipulating and testing of the forces acting upon biological structures, mechanobiology focuses instead on observing how physical cues affect behavior.


What does this mean? It had been hypothesized for some time that mechanical forces and physical cues can actually drive the formation and/or responses of biological structures. However, only recently, as a result of newer and more developed technologies, researchers have begun to see how biological structures, especially cells, seem to transduce mechanical forces and stimuli into biochemical signals. When cells sense and transduce these mechanical forces, this is known as mechanotransduction at the cellular level. To get an idea of how mechanotransduction at the cellular level works, let’s take the example of an experiment conducted on mesenchymal stem cells, which are a type of multipotent adult stem cell that can differentiate into bone, cartilage, muscle, and fat cells. The experiment described (Engler et al 2006) tested how the microenvironment surrounding mesenchymal stem cells could affect what the cells specialise into.


What is the environment surrounding cells made up of? Tissues are made up not only of cells, but also of the space in between their cells, and this space includes what is known as the extracellular matrix. The extracellular matrix in connective tissue can determine what the tissue’s physical properties will be. Some of these physical properties include the tissue’s stiffness and elasticity. Physical properties will differ from tissue type to tissue type. For example, soft matrices are present in the brain, stiffer matrices are in our muscles, and very stiff and rigid matrices are present in bones.


Image Credit: Annie Hu

A part of the experiment observed how matrix elasticity affected naive mesenchymal stem cell differentiation. This was achieved by culturing cells in different environments that mimicked the stiffness of a certain tissue type. Intriguingly, it was found that when these stem cells were cultured in environments representative of the stiffness/elasticity of different types of tissue, they began to display features of the cells present within the tissue that their new environment mimicked. Cells grown in a softer environment like that of the brain started to show characteristics similar to cells present in the brain, while those grown in a stiffer environment like that in muscle tissues showed characteristics of muscle cells, and the ones grown in a rigid environment began to take on the form of bone cells.


You can see how the cells seemed to transduce the mechanical stimuli of their environment into biochemical signals, indicating which type of cell to differentiate into. This is a great example of what MechanoBiology is, the science of how physical cues can affect the behavior of biological structures, just like how the environment affected the differentiation of the mesenchymal stem cells. Understanding mechanotransduction could be essential to creating new and improved therapeutic treatments for many of the diseases and health problems that plague us. We could potentially change stem cell fate by determining the type of cell they are to become; we could learn to use mechanical signals to our advantage in order to hinder disease progression, regulate cell behavior, and promote regeneration. There is so much yet to uncover in the exciting, growing field of MechanoBiology!


If you are curious about the mesenchymal stem cell experiment, you can read about it here! Thank you so much for reading, and I hope that I was able to help you learn more about this extremely fascinating science!


Definitions:


Physiology- How an organism or body part works

Transduce- To convert into another form

Mechanotransduction- The transduction of mechanical forces and stimuli