Towards the end of our MRes’, Kevin dumped a box of pipe cleaners in front of Liam and me and told us to build a basement membrane – and after a few days (a few weeks maybe – it’s quite intricate), shown below is what we ended up with:
- Red/Green/Blue – Laminin heterotrimers
- Purple – Perlecan
- White – Nidogen
- Yellow/Black/Brown – Collagen IV
- White/Yellow (Basal) – Integrins
- Orange – Cell membrane
A few components are missing such as agrin but we are just two humans with a box of pipe cleaners and a dream!
What’s interesting about the model is that it’s incredibly robust – it’s been almost a year now and after many assaults from passers-by, it still has all the structural integrity as the day it was first made – reminding us that millions of years of evolution have allowed basement membranes to possess very intricate structures which allows them their impressive integrity!
It’s not surprising that mimicking a macromolecular structure leads to a physically robust model. Our evolutionary progress is not only governed by natural selection, but it is also guided by the forces of physics, and often when a macromolecular structure is scaled up, it retains many of its physical properties – and there are occasions where we can use this to create improved man-made structures.
It is worth giving a shoutout here to the Scottish mathematical biologist D’Arcy Wentworth Thompson, who in 1917 published the first edition of his book On Growth and Form. This was the first major work to unite the fields of mathematics, biology, and physics, drawing correlations between biological forms and mechanical phenomena.
We have come a long way since then, and cross-discipline research is greatly improving our understanding of biological structures– particularly in the field of mechanobiology, which is super important in relation to extracellular matrix biology! In fact, there was an awesome ‘Scaling, the cytoskeleton and mechanobiology’ workshop at Durham last year which I got to attend which aimed to bring together physicists and biologists.
Anyway, it goes to show how messing around with something ostensibly random can link nicely into scientific thinking!
Read more about basement membranes on my “introduction” page here
Or about laminins here