Building with Cells – 1.28.22

Dear College of Science Faculty and Staff,

If you have a penchant to build your own house, here’s an 800 page book that will guide you through. To build something larger, say EXP, that we are joyfully watching rise on Columbus Ave, you will need expert input, a lot of money and detailed plans. The largest construction project underway on planet Earth may be ITER, a massive fusion reactor in France, that will produce net energy, projected for completion in 2025. Plans for ITER likely run ten thousand pages, and include thousands of expert workers, $25+ billion and 35 countries.

But actually, ITER is not the most complex engineering project around. No. So what is? Look in the mirror! It’s you! Building a person is way more complex than any human-made construction. And there is no crew to hire, no book of plans to purchase. Rather, people get built all the time, quickly, perfectly and at pretty low cost, raising the question of how the hugely successful Construction Industry of Life works so effectively.

To answer this, a few years ago, I started a course called Building with Cells, that was a fantastic experience for both students and professor. Students began by comparing building a house and building a person. Here’s some of their list.
THEY ARE BUILT OF BRICKS. Well, bricks for the house, and something analogous – cells – for the person.
LOTS OF BRICKS. For the house, you buy a pile of bricks. For the person, it is quite different, there is just one very powerful starter cell, that makes more and more and more – reaching the 100 trillion cells that are you. No purchase needed.
A BRICK IS A BRICK. Every brick is about the same, but cells come in hundreds of different kinds that do various, important things, like being your nerves, skin or blood. And all came from that one starter cell. Mind boggling.
THE BRICKS ARE JOINED TOGETHER. Bricks are cemented forever in place. But cells stick together using special glues and clamps that they make themselves! The glues and clamps can change or disappear, so that cell groups can break apart and rebuild something new. It’s a dynamic and brilliant construction strategy.
THEY HAVE ROOMS. In a house, rooms are basically boxes, with different purposes.  Your organs are the rooms of the body, built by cells. But organs are wildly different in shape, in structures and in their purposes, definitely not a series of boxes.
BRICKS ARE VERY QUIET. Very true. In contrast, cells are constantly having conversations. Cells send signals to each other and are influencers, that can totally transform their neighbors!
BRICKS STAY STILL. Yes. Cells, on the other hand, are on the go! They move alone or with friends, meeting up to build organs, repair worn parts, defend you or zip around carrying stuff.
THERE ARE PLANS INVOLVED. Architectural plans for the house, a genetic code for the person. But genetic code is not a book of plans, it’s more like a set of Ikea instructions. You start at the beginning and each step automatically leads to the next. We are far from being able to write all instructions to build a human – we know only bits, like important genes and signals.
THINGS NEED FIXING. Constantly. For the house, you do it yourself or hire someone. But for the person, scheduled maintenance is built in!  Cells die and new ones replace them, so quickly, you don’t notice. And apart from our brain, our bodies become new every two or three years. Wow!

In our Building with Cells course, the students went on to learn how you can use cells or cell components to repair damaged organs, cure disease, as sensors, or for data storage. I think there are no limits to the possibilities of building with cells and their associated parts.

Many of us in the College of Science and at Northeastern are in the Construction Industry of Life. Faculty and trainees are uncovering how Life is put together; how processes go wrong in disease or development; and how to build with cellular components – materials, medicines, tissues, helpful stem cells that can repair diseased or injured organs. Erin Cram, our Associate Dean for Research reckons there are approaching one hundred research groups at Northeastern University in the business, anyone working with embryos, tissues, cells, cell biology, movement, signaling, genes, gene regulation, gene products, biochemistry, molecular biology, modeling and more. The research is fantastic, the opportunities endless, only bounded by our creativity. This is the power of Building with Cells.

Please take care in the projected snowstorm tomorrow. I hope you stay safe and cozy!

dean signature

Hazel Sive PhD
Dean, College of Science
Northeastern University