by Ebonee Johnson
Researchers from Penn’s Center for Engineering Mechanobiology (CEMB) have discovered that cells change the physical structure of their genome when they’re affected by disease.
In a recent study published in Nature Biomedical Engineering, the team detailed what they found when they closely observed the nucleus of cells inside connective tissues deteriorating as a result of tendinosis, which is the chronic condition that results from a tendon repeatedly suffering small injuries that don’t heal correctly. Using the latest super-resolution imaging techniques, they found that the tendon cells involved in maintaining the tissue’s structure in a diseased microenvironment improperly reorder their chromatin — the DNA-containing material that chromosomes are composed of — when attempting to repair.
This and other findings highlighted in the report point to the possibility of new treatments, such as small-molecule therapies, that could restore order to the affected cells.
“Interestingly, we were able to explain the role of mechanical forces on the 3-D organization of chromatin by developing a theory that integrates fundamental thermodynamic principles (physics) with the kinetics of epigenetic regulation (biology),” said study co-author and CEMB Director Vivek Shenoy in a news release from Penn Medicine News.
The CEMB, one of 18 active interdisciplinary research centers funded by the National Science Foundation’s Science and Technology Center (STC) program, brings together dozens of researchers from Penn Engineering and the Perelman School of Medicine, as well as others spread across campus and at partner institutions around the world.
With its funding recently renewed for another five years, the CEMB has entered into a new phase of its mission, centered on the nascent concept of “mechanointelligence,” which is exemplified by studies like this one. While mechanobiology is the study of the physical forces that govern the behavior of cells and their communication with their neighbors, mechanointelligence adds another layer of complexity: attempting to understand the forces that allow cells to sense, remember and adapt to their environments.
Ultimately, harnessing these forces would allow researchers to help multicellular organisms — plants, animals and humans — better adapt to their environments as well.
Read “Aberrant chromatin reorganization in cells from diseased fibrous connective tissue in response to altered chemomechanical cues” at Nature Biomedical Engineering.
Read “The Locked Library: Disease Causes Cells to Reorder Their DNA Incorrectly” at Penn Medicine News.
This story originally appeared in Penn Engineering Today.
Vivek Shenoy is Eduardo D. Glandt President’s Distinguished Professor in Materials Science and Engineering, Bioengineering, and in Mechanical Engineering and Applied Mechanics.