We have studied the generation of spatial patterns created by mechanical (rather than chemical) instabilities. When dissociated fibroblasts are suspended in a gel of reprecipitated collagen, and the contraction of the gel as a whole is physically restrained by attachment of its margin to a glass fibre meshwork, then the effect of the fibroblasts' traction is to break up the cell-matrix mixture into a series of clumps or aggregations of cells and compressed matrix. These aggregations are interconnected by linear tracts of collagen fibres aligned under the tensile stress exerted by fibroblast traction. The patterns generated by this mechanical instability vary depending upon cell population density and other factors. Over a certain range of cell concentrations, this mechanical instability yields geometric patterns which resemble but are usually much less regular than the patterns which develop normally in the dermis of developing bird skin. We propose that an equivalent mechanical instability, occurring during the embryonic development of this skin, could be the cause not only of the clumping of dermal fibroblasts to form the feather papillae, but also of the alignment of collagen fibres into the characteristic polygonal network of fibre bundles - which interconnect these papillae and which presage the subsequent pattern of the dermal muscles serving to control feather movements.

More generally, we suggest that this type of mechanical instability can serve the morphogenetic functions for which Turing's chemical instability and other reaction-diffusion systems have been proposed. Mechanical instabilities can create physical structures directly, in one step, in contrast to the two or more steps which would be required if positional information first had to be specified by chemical gradients and then only secondarily implemented in physical form. In addition, physical forces can act more quickly and at much longer range than can diffusing chemicals and can generate a greater range of possible geometries than is possible using gradients of scalar properties. In cases (such as chondrogenesis) where cell differentiation is influenced by the local population density of cells and extracellular matrix, the physical patterns of force and distortion within this extracellular matrix should even be able to accomplish the spatial control of differentiation, usually attributed to diffusible ‘morphogens’.

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