In an article published in the journal Nature Materials, researchers at the IBEC and the UPC describe their discovery that ‘fracking’takes place in the body at a cellular level.
The work describes how hydraulic fracturing, or ‘fracking’ – most commonly known as the controversial technique to extract gas and petroleum from shale rock layers – also plays an important role in the epithelial tissues that lining the internal and external surfaces of our bodies.
The research team developed new technologies to submit these tissues to mechanical deformations. “We wanted to understand how living tissues behave in response to the types of distortions experienced as a result of the heart beating, or breathing, for example,” says Xavier Trepat, ICREA researcher and group leader of the Integrative Cell, Tissue Dynamics group at IBEC and professor at UB. “We expected that, faced with very large distortions, the tissues would respond by snapping as if under excessive tension, as other scientists have previously proposed. Surprisingly, we found that ‘fracking’ occurred, instead.”
“The behavior of the fibrous material that surrounds cells – the extracellular matrix – is a lot like a sponge,” explains UPC professor Marino Arroyo. “When we squeeze a sponge, it releases water. The same happens when we compress the tissues of our body; they release water, and when this water hits the cells, it creates an hydraulic fracture.”
Fracking has different consequences in living tissue than in the earth’s subsoil. “Ruptures underground are irreversible, whereas the body is able to repair hydraulic breaks in less than five minutes,” says IBEC’s Laura Casares, first author on the paper. “Under normal circumstances, hydraulic pressures generated in the body do not cause problems. But in pathological conditions or ageing tissue, fracking may cause or aggravate inflammatory diseases characterized by the infiltration of fluid in tissues.”
The discovery of fracking in living tissues open avenues to new biotechnological applications. “One possibility could be the selective release of drugs,” says Xavier. “Fracking could be used to cause small, reversible fractures in difficult to access tissues, and these could be used to deliver drugs in a controlled manner. “
Hydraulic fracture during epithelial stretching, Laura Casares, Romaric Vincent, Dobryna Zalvidea, Noelia Campillo, Daniel Navajas, Marino Arroyo & Xavier Trepat, Nature Materials, doi:10.1038/nmat4206, published online 9 February 2015.