Science

Scientists Discover a New Shape That Might Be Inside You Right Now

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Pedro Gómez-Gálvez et al.

The cells in our bodies are put together in all kinds of weird ways. Neuron cells have long, branching connections to other cells, bones form porous structures, and blood vessels float freely around the body. But a lot of cells are simply squished together as tightly as possible, and scientists have determined that these cells in particular come in a unique and previously unknown shape, called a “scutoid.”

Much of our bodies are covered in epithelial cells, which are cells designed to stick very closely together in order to form some type of barrier or wall. Our skin cells are epithelial cells, as are the cells that form the walls of many of our organs. One of the most important functions these cells have is keeping things either inside or outside of the areas they surround, so forming a tight wall is of paramount importance.

So what shape do these cells take? Most scientists previously believed that these cells were shaped like simple cylinders, but new research suggests they take a more complicated shape. Researchers at the University of Seville ran a computer simulation to determine what the most efficient shape would be, and their simulation settled on a strange prism-like shape.

The shape has six sides at the top and five sides at the bottom, and one of the sides had a triangular protrusion. Crucially, this shape—which the scientists named the “scutoid” after the similarly-named and -shaped scutellum of a beetle—does indeed stack much better than a simple cylinder.

But just because a computer says it’s the best shape doesn’t mean that anything in nature actually uses it, so the researchers examined cells from fruit flies and zebrafish to see if the scutoid shows up in those animals’ epithelial tissue. To their delight, it did. They’re not certain whether these scutoid-shaped cells exist in humans as well, but there’s a good chance.

In addition to discovering what epithelial cells look like, these researchers also discovered a brand new shape new to mathematics. Mathematical discoveries are often very abstract but can frequently have impact in other fields in science or engineering. So scutoids are only in your body right now, but eventually we might start seeing them show up all over the place.

Source: Nature Communications

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