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How Technion Physicists Cracked a Mystery of Biology
By Shlomo Maital
A team of Technion-Israel Institute of Technology physicists (led by Profs. Kinneret Keren and Erez Braun, with a group of students) has published breakthrough research in the journal Cell Reports. It is unusual for physicists to publish in a biology journal. Here is the story.
The subject of the research was the amazing ability of the “hydra”, a tiny fresh water animal, 1 cm. in size (about half an inch), to regenerate itself. The hydra’s skeleton has a built-in memory that enables it to regenerate. If you take a piece of hydra tissue, it can soon regenerate the entire animal. But how? Until now, it was thought that this worked through chemical signals that guided the tissue on how to create a head, tentacles and a foot.
But the new Technion study finds a different explanation. It is done with thin protein fibers. The skeleton of the protein fibers survive, and they instruct cells how to arrange themselves to create an adult body. First, the pieces of tissue severed from the hydra form a small ball. This forces the protein fibers to balance the preservation of the old skeleton structure and adaptation to the new ball. New body parts develop, based on the pattern information stored in the skeleton. The ball soon sprouts a mouth and a whole new animal. The physicist researchers used their science to understand the physical role of the “ball”.
Could this one day lead to a technology that enables humans to regenerate their body parts? Far fetched? Indeed. But it could happen.
The fruitful research of physicists in biology reminds me of a meeting I had with a distinguished Indian scientist, during a recent visit, who decades ago pioneered in biophysics, which has since yielded huge bounties.
Innovator – if you can link two fields that are heretofore unconnected, you may come up with change-the-world ideas.