Now two Northwestern University scientists have demonstrated that the tendency to minimize surface area is not limited to soap bubbles but extends to living things as well. In a paper published Oct. 7 in the journal Nature, they show that cells within the retina take on shapes and pack together like soap bubbles, ultimately forming a pattern that is repeated again and again across the eye. Gaining insight into these patterns can help researchers understand the interplay between genetics and physics in cell formation.
"The cells we studied, those found in the retina of the fruit fly, adopt mathematically predictable shapes and configurations," said Richard W. Carthew, professor of biochemistry, molecular biology and cell biology and a co-author on the paper. "Like bubbles, life has co-opted a physical tendency for surfaces to be minimized and has harnessed it to design intricate cellular patterns within complex structures such as the eye."
Similar to the colored dots in a Georges Seurat painting, though on a three-dimensional scale, the cell is the indivisible unit that gives shape to something larger and recognizable -- a butterfly, a maple tree, a human being. How is this amazing diversity of species created?
"It is like designing the pieces of a jigsaw puzzle so that they fit together seamlessly," said Carthew. "Understanding how cells fit together in space is an underappreciated area of science that has started to gain serious momentum in the last decade. Cells are different shapes and pack together in different ways depending on where they are located in a living thing and what their function is."