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Researchers Have Discovered A Brand-New Shape, And It Holds The Secret Of How You're Alive

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Dr. Katie Spalding

Freelance Writer

clockJul 30 2018, 15:04 UTC

crystal light/Shutterstock / Nature Communications

Shelve the sphere, can the cube, and dump the, uh... diminished rhombicosidodecahedron – there's a new shape in town, and it just might hold one of the secrets of life itself.

Dubbed the "scutoid" because of its resemblance to the "scutellum" of a beetle, the shape was described in a new article in Nature Communications by scientists researching the body's epithelial cells – the building blocks of embryo development that go on to line our organs, blood vessels, and skin.

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Amazingly, despite playing such a significant role in our biology, nobody knew what these cells looked like before now – the best guess was that they might be prisms or truncated pyramids, with one end growing larger than the other to allow organs to curve and flex. But now, this study has shown there's actually something far more interesting going on.

"[W]hen tissue curves it tends to minimise energy, to be more stable, and for that reason our biophysical data indicates that what these cells do is adopt a scutoid shape," explained study author Luisma Escudero in a statement. The researchers say the scutoids, which they describe as "like 'twisted prisms'", give the cells a more stable structure. 

The scutoid clearly has important ramifications in biology, but what's especially cool is how it was discovered. Like all good geometry results (and I'll admit a bias here – I'm a huge math nerd), this new shape was found using mathematical theory before it was observed in the wild.

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"First, we generated a Voronoi diagram on the inner surface (apical)," explains the study. "Then, the seed of each Voronoi cell was projected to the closest point on the surface of an outer cylinder (basal) generating a second Voronoi diagram in the basal surface of the tube."

OK, so papers on computational morphogenesis don't exactly make for light reading. But strip away the technical jargon, and you get this:

Behold the scutoid! University of Seville

Amazingly, observations of cells in zebrafish and fruitflies confirmed that they were indeed scutoid-shaped – and the researchers think it's true for humans as well.

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Sitting at the interface between math, biology, and physics means this discovery has something for all flavors of science nerd, but the study authors say they particularly hope it can help biomedical research – looking at how organs develop, and what happens in the body when this goes wrong. "[I]n the medium term, we will be able to begin to try to apply this knowledge to the creation of artificial tissue and organs in the laboratory," notes the statement.

But for now, the researchers are enjoying basking in their discovery. "You normally don’t have the opportunity in your life to name something that will hopefully be there forever," study author Javier Buceta told Gizmodo. "It’s not going to be the circle or the square, but we have been able to name a new shape."


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