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Study explains why our organs are bendy

An international team of researchers has discovered how one of the body’s crucial building blocks allows human tissues to be so flexible.

A University of Manchester scientist working with Professor Tony Weiss and Dr Giselle Yeo at the University of Sydney and Professor Markus Buehler and Anna Tarakanova at MIT now have a better understanding of how elastin – which makes our organs and vessels flexible – moves.

The research could one day help us to understand why some diseases weaken blood vessels, or improve the ability of scientists to artificially engineer new tissue.

Elastin allows skin to stretch and twist, blood vessels to expand and relax, and lungs to swell and contract – and is present in many of our body’s structures.

Elastin tissues are made up of a protein called tropoelastin, which are strung together in chain-like structures.

The findings were published in the journal Science Advances.

Professor Clair Baldock from The University of Manchester used a synchrotron – a type of particle accelerator which propels charged particles to near light speed – to reveal the shape and structure of tropoelastin molecules.

And her colleagues at Sydney and MIT scientists revealed how it moves, by using a combination of computer modelling and laboratory work.

Professor Baldock said: “Thanks to this collaborative approach, we now understand that the scissor shaped ‘bump’ of one tropoelastin molecule locks onto the narrow part of another, eventually building up a chain.

“It is these long chains that weave together to produce the flexible tissues so essential to human life such skin, lungs, and blood vessels.

“The ultimate goal of this work is to apply this research to medical practice, though that still is probably a long way off.”

The research team, which also included Steven Wise of the Heart Research Institute in Sydney, was supported in part by grants from the Australian Research Council, the National Institutes of Health, the BBSRC, Wellcome Trust, and the Office of Naval Research.