Biotensegrity everywhere?


Statue from somewhere in Georgia that we saw celebrating a family watching murmuration.

Scientists are always looking for general rules, and then stretch what we know to fit assorted Procrustean beds. For example, the rule that “everything is a fractal”, which means it looks much the same no matter how much you magnify or shrink it, works just fine with mathematical fractals, but does have limits when applied to the real world. Take a branching structure, such as a lung (Glenny, 2011). At the bottom you hit the alveoli (air sacs), and at the other end is the trachea (windpipe), neither of which resembles the intermediate, fractal-like branching structure in between. Another grand unifying scenario is The Emergence of Everything (Morowitz, 2002), as if atoms forming crystals, birds forming murmurations, and galaxies forming clusters were somehow one and the same phenomenon. Maybe so, maybe not, maybe they just share some mathematical properties and we thus think they are somehow projections from Plato’s ideals (Wikipedia, 2016). In Embryogenesis Explained (Gordon & Gordon, 2016) we took a crack at the concept of wholeness, showing it is well supported by quantum mechanics, yet could not extend it readily to the seeming wholeness of embryos. Rob Stone and I settled on what we called the Cybernetic Embryo (Stone & Gordon, 2016), and indeed are now trying to extend it to all of evolution. So I’m equally guilty of attempting to find grandiose patterns in nature. It’s fun, but, as William Bateson said, keep your eyes open and “Treasure your exceptions” (Cock & Forsdyke, 2008).


Knee anatomy. If the knee is treated as tensigrity structure then knee pain can be explained as the structure having some part out of balance and pain can be alleviated by correcting the balance of the assorted parts.  Blausen 0597 Knee Anatomy Slide by BruceBlaus Wikiversity Journal of Medicine DOI:1015347/wjm/2014/010

Last November we spent two weeks with Steve (an orthopaedic surgeon by training) and Olga Levin, and he almost convinced me (as he is convinced) that tensegrity is everywhere, at every level, from molecules to our muscles and bones. Now I had indulged in the concept much earlier, regarding the cell state splitter as a tensegrity apparatus, which I modelled using a Tensegritoy set (pp. 141, 170, 310 in Gordon, 1999). Natalie and I used the Wurfel, a tensegrity toy for toddlers, as a model of how changes in the configuration of the whole genome could explain the changes in gene expression during cell differentiation. We included this concept in the “nuclear state splitter”, which we have elaborated in great detail in Embryogenesis Explained, shedding the Wurfel model in the process. So we were open to Steve’s proselytizing (Levin, 2006) resulting in seeing shaped oil droplets as tensegrity structures in a recent blog (Gordon, 2016), stretching the concept to include polygonal diatoms and protocells at the origin of life.

For the uninitiated, an object consisting of stiff parts held together by elastic parts under tension has “integrity”, i.e., holds itself together. The word “tensegrity” was coined by Buckminster Fuller (Wikipedia, 2015).

(Animation of the simplest of tensegrity structures by Cmglee from Wikipedia Commons)

This week I started on a long hoped for adventure: working towards a realistic tensegrity simulation of the structure of cytoplasm. Last March Steve introduced me to Vytas SunSpiral of NASA, who recently brought in Dorothea Blostein of Guelph University. Both have been developing tensegrity robots for exploring the terrain of bodies in the solar system (SunSpiral & Agogino, 2015), and doing computer simulations (Blostein, 2016) of how they move. We have much to teach each other, and then a lot of work to do to introduce biological phenomena into their software. We hope to reach the point where we can challenge biologists to do appropriate measurements to test how close we come to simulating real cytoplasm. Then on to nuclei, spindle apparatus, whole cells, tissues, and embryogenesis, all seen as a panoply of tensegrity phenomena. Well, maybe.


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