40th Annual Naff Symposium
University of Kentucky
College of Arts & Sciences
Dr. Donald E. Ingber
Director, Wyss Institute for Biologically Inspired Engineering at Harvard University
Abstract: The newly emerging field of Biologically Inspired Engineering centers on understanding the fundamental principles that Nature uses to build and control living systems, and on applying this knowledge to engineer biologically inspired materials and devices for medicine, industry and the environment. A central challenge in this field is to understand of how living cells and tissues are constructed so that they exhibit their incredible organic properties, including their ability to change shape, move, grow, and self-heal. These are properties we strive to mimic, but we cannot yet build manmade devices that exhibit or selectively control these behaviors. To accomplish this, we must uncover the underlying design principles that govern how cells and tissues form and function as hierarchical assemblies of nanometer scale components. In this lecture, I will review work that has begun to reveal these design principles that guide self-assembly of living 3D structures with great robustness, mechanical strength and biochemical efficiency, even though they are composed of many thousands of flexible molecular scale components. Key to this process is that the molecular frameworks of our cells, tissues and organs are stabilized using a tension-dependent architectural system, known as ‘tensegrity’, and these tensed molecular scaffolds combine mechanical load-bearing functions with solid-phase biochemical processing activities. I will describe how this structural perspective has led to new insights into the molecular basis of cellular mechanotransduction – the process by which living cells sense mechanical forces and convert them into changes in intracellular biochemistry, gene expression and thereby influence cell fate decisions during tissue and organ development. In addition, I will present how these scientific advances have been facilitated by development of new micro- and nano-technologies, including engineering of novel human organ-on-a-chip microdevices that also have great potential value as replacements for animal testing in drug development and discovery research. Understanding of these design principles that govern biological organization, and how scientific discovery and technology development can be facilitated by equally melding fundamental science and applied engineering, are critical for anyone who wants to fully harness the power of biology.