Prestigious award to decode body’s hidden communications

4 July 2023

An IMB researcher has been awarded a prestigious Australian Research Council (ARC) Laureate Fellowship to investigate a hidden level of communication within our bodies essential for multicellular life. 

Professor Alpha Yap has received $3.3 million to identify the information pathways that cells use to communicate with each other, which will improve our understanding of how tissues and bodies are formed and function.Professor Alpha Yap

“With the support of ARC project grants, my group has made a good deal of progress in this area in the past few years," Professor Yap said.

How do our trillions of cells work together?

"The Laureate Fellowship will provide the opportunity for us to investigate the problem at scale, really getting to the heart of the problem – and helping give young scientists new multidisciplinary training for them to pursue these questions into the future.

“One of the greatest questions in biology is how thousands to trillions of cells work together to create the functioning tissues and organs that make up the diverse forms of life.

“Science has made great progress in elucidating hormonal and electrical signals that are used to communicate by endocrine and neural tissues respectively. 

“However, we have recently come to appreciate that there is another level of communication that has been hidden in plain sight: the role of mechanical forces.”

Physical forces that shape our bodies

Mechanical forces are the physical forces that cells exert on each other to create the shape and structure of organs and whole bodies. 

Researchers have now realised that mechanical forces can be transmitted and received as signals for cell-to-cell communication in a process called mechanotransduction.

How do cell communities signal?

Professor Yap said while there have been rapid advances in understanding how mechanotransduction works at the level of individual cells, scientists still don’t know how this works at the level of communities of cells, specifically in tissues and organs.

“I propose that mechanical forces constitute a fundamental mode of biological information that is essential for multicellular life,” he said.

“I will use the Laureate Fellowship to address how mechanical signals are transmitted in tissues: how far, how fast and how are they interpreted; and how this communication system is controlled.

“Biological tissues are the ultimate self-engineers and we are far from being able to match their capabilities – understanding mechanical signalling will lay the foundation for new understanding of disease pathology, and ultimatelyultimately pointing to new diagnostics and treatments, and new opportunities for tissue engineering.”