Researchers at the University of Seville in Spain have recently discovered the existence of a new shape: The scutoid, (phonetically pronounced scoo-toid).
The new shape was discovered while studying epithelial cells. Epithelial cells are the body’s natural barriers, protecting your insides and your out. Your skin is made of them and they also line your throat, intestines, organs, and blood vessels. Epithelial cells have to be tightly packed in order to form an effective shield. They also have to be shaped in a way that allows them to stick together when various tissues and organs begin to twist and curve. Scutoids’ unique shape allows groups of cells to remain packed tightly while still being able to bend. HUMANS HAVE NO FLAT SURFACES On a completely flat surface, prisms have no trouble staying squeezed together. However, the human body has almost no flat surfaces! Until now, scientists thought that epithelial cells were shaped like frustums. (A frustum is a prism with two flat bases, one wider than the other.) WHAT ARE THEY MADE OF? The researchers used a computer program to figure out what happens to epithelial cells in curved tissue and discovered that what actually happened was not what they expected. As the cells stretched, they also developed a flat, triangular surface along one side. Imagine you have a prism-shaped tent. It has a pentagonal roof and floor and zippers down all five sides where two points meet. You unzip one side from the bottom and fold the flaps back so that they form a triangle. The tent floor is now a hexagon. If you find that hard to visualize, don’t worry! The research team also had trouble, until one of them made a clay model with his daughter. HOW DID THEY GET THIS NAME? The researchers weren’t sure what to call this new shape. They asked mathematicians, who told them that they weren’t sure either; This was a geometric shape that they had no idea existed! The scientists were able to confirm the existence of scutoids by studying fruit flies and zebrafish.
LAYS THE FOUNDATION FOR MUCH MORE Now that we have a better understanding of how epithelial cells arrange themselves, this paves the way for potentially exciting advances in medicine and the growth of artificial organs. “We believe that this is a major breakthrough in many ways,” says Luis Escudero, one of the researchers. “We are convinced that there are more implications that we are trying to understand as we speak.” Welcome to the world scutoids.