Center for Engineering Mechanobiology 2.0: Developing ‘mechanointelligence’

The new interdisciplinary Center for Engineering Mechanobiology brings together researchers from the School of Engineering and Applied Science and the Perelman School of Medicine together with those from across campus and beyond around the concept of ‘mechanointelligence.’

The National Science Foundation’s Science and Technology Center (STC) program is its flagship funding mechanism for organizing interdisciplinary research on cutting-edge topics. Penn’s Center for Engineering MechanoBiology (CEMB) is one of the 18 active STCs, bringing together dozens of researchers from Penn Engineering and the Perelman School of Medicine, as well as others spread across campus and at partner institutions around the world.

Microscopic view of an individual cell illuminated in bright colors.
The dynamics governing mechanointelligence vary greatly along time- and length-scales, so detailed models of individual cells and their components are necessary to connect the effects of their physical environments to the downstream effects those forces have on biological processes. (Image: Penn Engineering Today)

With its NSF funding now renewed for another five years, the Center is entering into a new phase of its mission, centered on the nascent concept of “mechanointelligence.”

Mechanobiology is the study of the physical forces that govern the behavior of cells and their communication with their neighbors. Mechanointelligence adds another layer of complexity, attempting to understand the forces that allow cells to sense, remember and adapt to their environments.

Ultimately, harnessing these forces would allow researchers to help multicellular organisms—plants, animals and humans—better adapt to their environments as well.

“Mechanointelligence is a key element of a cell’s ability to survive and reproduce,” says CEMB Director and Eduardo D. Glandt President’s Distinguished Professor Vivek Shenoy. “Just like with complex organisms, a cell’s ‘fitness’ depends on its environment, and adapting means rewiring how its genes are expressed.”

While every cell has a full copy of its organism’s genome tucked away in its nucleus, the practical questions of biology often boil down to where, when and how those genes are converted into proteins. The first phase of Penn’s CEMB research studied how forces alter this expression in the short term; its second phase will further incorporate the growing science of epigenetics to illuminate their longer-term impacts.

Read more at Penn Engineering Today.