Multi-scale modeling reveals use of hierarchical tensegrity principles at the molecular, multi-molecular, and cellular levels


The nature of human mind to comprehend how every single entity in the universe works has resulted in the development of mind-boggling theories. Specifically, biotechnologists have developed a very intriguing discipline, termed: mechanobiology (pioneered by Professor Donald E. Ingber), that focuses on the key role of mechanical forces and their responsibilities, in matters relating to biological structures and their functioning regardless of the size. This mechanobiology discipline, however, calls upon several approaches that cut across all scientific disciplines, namely: mathematics and physics, medical sciences and chemistry. Nonetheless, much in this new discipline has been borrowed from the cellular tensegrity theory, which dictates that living systems use principles of tensegrity architecture to govern how molecules self-assemble to create multi-molecular structures, organelles, cells, tissues, organs and living organisms. Unfortunately, despite the fact that numerous experiments have validated data in support of the use of tensegrity by biological systems, a critical drawback still remains in that it is still impossible to visualize how these architectural principles are utilized to build hierarchical structures of various sizes and complexity that undergo dynamic changes in form and mechanics within living cells.

Dr. Charles Reilly and Professor Donald E. Ingber from the Wyss Institute for Biologically Inspired Engineering at Harvard University presented a novel approach to multi-scale computational modeling that they anticipated would confirm that tensegrity principles were successfully utilized at multiple different size scales and across various levels of structural complexity within living cells. In addition, they focused on carrying out simulations with intentions to reveal that tensegrity-based changes in molecular shape had potential to drive transformations in 3D cell shape and dynamic cellular motion at larger scales, using the mammalian sperm cell as a model system. Their work is currently published in the research journal, Extreme Mechanics Letters.

The research method employed commenced with the multi-scale modeling of swimming sperm cell utilizing a systematic approach. The approach involved, first: modeling a multi-molecular axoneme cytoskeleton from a whole sperm cell. Secondly, the previously modeled multi-molecular axoneme was further modeled to the molecular level. Lastly, integration of top-down and bottom-up multi-scale models was accomplished. The researchers then engaged in a detailed multiscale modeling of chemomechanical coupling in molecules.

The authors observed that their novel approach was able to demonstrate how intramolecular tensegrity force balances could be coupled to microenvironmental substrate concentrations for a given enzyme. Additionally, they noted that their cell-scaled down approach in the axoneme model had potential to be implemented to larger systems in a modular fashion.

In summary, the Charles Reilly-Donald E. Ingber study presented a new multiscale modeling approach. Their novel approach entailed the incorporation of a procedural computational modeling strategy that combined parametric animation with finite element method and molecular dynamic simulation methods, and integrated actual experimental data. Altogether, the simulation approach presented has many potential applications in studies relating to systems discovery, mechanobiology, origin of life, and any other field where multiple molecular systems are hierarchically integrated and mechanically intertwined, which essentially describes all living things.

Multi-scale modeling reveals use of hierarchical tensegrity principles at the molecular, multi-molecular, and cellular levels - Advances in Engineering

About the author

Charles Reilly Ph.D., is a molecular biophysicist at the Wyss Institute for Biologically Inspired Engineering at Harvard University, where he develops computational strategies for investigating biophysical phenomena.

Charles’s work takes a “design for discovery” approach to understanding hierarchical systems and multiscale mechanics. Using film industry VFX tools, he intertwines data-driven-animation with simulation to merge many different kinds of experimental observations. This unique approach to generating dynamic depictions allows hypothesis generation and analysis of the natural world across multiple scales. His style of research intertwines artistic and scientific processes, and explores the role an aesthetic agenda can play in advancing scientific understanding. Charles is currently applying his work to the design of therapeutics and understanding the molecular mechanisms of diseases.

Charles is also a visual artist and his recent exhibition, Life in Picoseconds at Le Laborotoire in Cambridge, MA, explored the role that rhythm has at the molecular scale and how the relationships and interactions between atoms contribute to the choreography of life at fundamental time scales. His short film The Beginning demonstrated how the pursuit of an artistic agenda and an entertainment focus can lead to multiscale modelling innovation and increased insight into molecular biodynamics at the nanoscale. Charles completed his Ph.D. in Biochemistry and Molecular Biology at the University of Melbourne in 2012, where he also studied at the Melbourne Business School.

Prior to that, Charles worked in film post-production at Park Road Post, a facility owned by director Peter Jackson. Charles also spent time as a biomedical animator at the Walter and Eliza Hall Institute of Medical Research following his Ph.D. In 2017 Charles was named a Young Pioneer in Physics by the World Frontiers Forum.


Charles B. Reilly, Donald E. Ingber. Multi-scale modeling reveals use of hierarchical tensegrity principles at the molecular, multi-molecular, and cellular levels. Extreme Mechanics Letters, volume 20 (2018) page 21–28.

Go To Extreme Mechanics Letters

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