Scutoids are characterized by having at least a vertex in a different plane to the two bases and present curved surfaces. The resemblance is striking if one looks at the posterior of a Protaetia speciosa beetle of the Cetoniinae sub-family. Figure adapted from Gómez-Gálvez et al., Illustration by Dr. Nicolas Gompel.
The new shape, dubbed the scutoid, allows these epithelial cells to organize with the most efficiency, as opposed to the column or bottle-like shapes scientists previously attributed to this process. They think the scutoid shape is extremely efficient at keeping cells tightly-packed and organised in the literal twists and turns of development.
A team studying these cells, which can be found lining our organs and blood vessels pinpointed a three-dimensional shape that occurs as they bend and pack together.
However, upon examining epithelial curves in laboratory samples, the researchers found evidence that these real cells adopt other more complex shapes.
A scutoid is a solid geometric shape, like a cube or a pyramid, which had not been described until now.
Luis Escudero, a developmental biologist at the University of Seville in Spain and co-author on the work, told Gizmodo that it was hard to define what the new shape actually looked in the early stages of computer modelling. It could be said that they look like "twisted prisms". "Our model predicted that as the curvature of the tissue increases, columns and bottle-shapes were not the only shapes that cells may develop".
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It's not every day a new shape is discovered, so systems biologist Javier Buceta, who's credited as a co-author of the study, was grateful for the opportunity to name a new shape. 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. The experimental data confirmed that epithelial cells adopted shapes and three-dimensional packing motifs similar to the ones predicted by the computational model.
This shape - new to math, not to nature - is the form that a group of cells in the body takes in order to pack tightly and efficiently into the tricky curves of organs, scientists reported in a new paper, published July 27 in the journal Nature Communications.
"We have unlocked nature's solution to achieving efficient epithelial bending", Buceta said.
Their findings could pave the way to understanding the three-dimensional organization of epithelial organs and lead to advancements in tissue engineering.
"In addition to this fundamental aspect of morphogenesis, the ability to engineer tissues and organs in the future critically relies on the ability to understand, and then control, the 3D organization of cells", wrote the study authors.