Imagine leaving behind a chunk of yourself as you walk. That is precisely what cells are capable of doing. The cells' ability to shed their smaller parts lacking in a nucleus is well known to occur in the body. However, these behaviors have been studied almost always on flat 2D substrates outside the body. In a new study published in Advanced Biology, mechanical engineering Ph.D. student and lead author Abinash Padhi, along with Associate Professor Amrinder Nain, identify new fragment behaviors on suspended nanofibers that mimic the native cellular environments inside the body.

Using precisely controlled fiber networks in three architectures (parallel, crosshatch, and hexagonal) that combined resemble in vivo fibrous biology, the study demonstrates fragments of three distinct shapes (rectangular, blob-like, and circular) on all three networks. Unique to fiber networks, fragments have oscillatory migratory behavior accompanied with dramatic shape changes capable of being sustained over tens of hours. Using special fiber networks acting as force sensors, the authors measured individual fragments' forces from small to large. 

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The collaborative study was a collaboration with Associate Professor Daniel Conway of Virginia Commonwealth University and Professor Rakesh Kapania from the Virginia Tech Grado Department of Aerospace and Ocean Engineering.  The research opens new directions in understanding the role of fragments used routinely inside the body for waste disposal, facilitating intercellular communication, and acting as beacons in cancer cell migration.