Epithelial cells are the cells that make up barriers and linings in our bodies – think of skin, and the lining of the heart or your throat or stomach. These sheets can bend and stretch, yet block dirt and germs from getting in, and separate different parts of the body from each other.
While skin looks like one continuous stream of stretchiness, it is actually made up of a number of individual epithelial cells joined together. Researchers have been trying to figure out what shape these skin cells would have to be in to form the barrier that they do, yet allow the stretchiness and elasticity that is required to function. They modeled it on a computer, and to their surprise, came up with a new shape that would allow all of that, with maximum efficiency as nature needs it to be.
Introducing the scutoid (pronounced as scooootoid)! This weird name is inspired by the triangle-shaped part of a beetle’s thorax called the scutellum. Check it out!
So it’s all well and good to come up with the perfectly efficient shape in theory, but then one has to check and see if the hypothesis is true. Researchers at The University of Seville, in Spain, and at Lehigh University in Pennsylvania, USA, looked for this scutoid in the epithelial cells of fruit flies, zebra fish and mammalian tissue, and found that this shape actually exists!
Pretty cool, huh? So why does it matter? It matters because when some people get sick, they need help from others. Some may need an organ transplant. There may not be a donor who matches their blood type and so on. Well scientists are trying to grow organs in a laboratory so that they can help more sick people. Now that they have the shape and structure of the basic building block, this may help them a lot!
Written by: Sunaina Murthy and Biyash Choksey