Changing spots into stripes could be shape of things to come

Leopards may be well known for never changing their spots, but new research suggests it might be possible … in a laboratory, at least.

Scientists investigating whether it is possible to engineer living cells so that they do unexpected things have made some surprising discoveries.

They found that it is possible to manipulate cells in such a way that their appearance and behaviour changes from what it would naturally be.

Their findings could inform the development of artificial tissues for use in medicine using cells that are programmed to organise themselves in new ways.

Researchers used kidney tissue samples to re-programme the behaviour of cells that would normally be arranged randomly within the kidney.

Using a genetic modification technique, the found they could programme the cells to spontaneously form spots or stripes – a process not previously seen in the lab.

The findings could help researchers learn how to preset cells to form other tissue structures that could be used to treat human disease.

Researchers designed artificial genetic code and introduced it to two types of kidney cells to influence their capabilities. The modification also introduced fluorescent proteins that made the cells turn either red or green.

The cells spontaneously separated into stripes or patches – a move that appeared to be driven by cells’ preference to sit alongside neighbours of the same colour and type.

Scientists say this was because each colour of cell expressed a different type of molecule on its surface. Red cells attached more securely to other red cells and green cells stuck better to green.

The team, from the University of Edinburgh’s SynthSys Synthetic Biology Centre, say that experiments like this pave the way for the development of artificial tissues that could be used in medicine.

Professor Jamie Davies said: “Developing therapies in the future will require getting cells to organise themselves so to perform specific tasks. We have demonstrated that it is possible to programme cells to organise themselves in new ways. This opens the door to using designer patterns to control the development of artificial tissues that could be taught to mimic the way human organs are built.”

The research is published in Scientific Reports.

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