Mechanobiological Oscillators Control Lymph Flow

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The ability of cells to sense and respond to physical forces has been recognized for decades, but researchers are only beginning to appreciate the fundamental importance of mechanical signals in biology. At the larger scale, there has been increased interest in the collective organization of cells and their ability to produce complex, “emergent” behaviors. Often, these complex behaviors result in tissue-level control mechanisms that manifest as biological oscillators, such as observed in fireflies, heartbeats, and circadian rhythms. In many cases, these complex, collective behaviors are controlled—at least in part—by physical forces imposed on the tissue or created by the cells. Here, we use mathematical simulations to show that two complementary mechanobiological oscillators are sufficient to control fluid transport in the lymphatic system: Ca2+-mediated contractions can be triggered by vessel stretch, whereas nitric oxide produced in response to the resulting fluid shear stress causes the lymphatic vessel to relax locally. Our model predicts that the Ca2+ and NO levels alternate spatiotemporally, establishing complementary feedback loops, and that the resulting phasic contractions drive lymph flow. We show that this mechanism is self-regulating and robust over a range of fluid pressure environments, allowing the lymphatic vessels to provide pumping when needed but remain open when flow can be driven by tissue pressure or gravity. Our simulations accurately reproduce the responses to pressure challenges and signaling pathway manipulations observed experimentally, providing an integrated conceptual framework for lymphatic function.


Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences





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Biomedical Engineering