Shedding light on the shape of life

PUBLISHED : Friday, 14 October, 2011, 12:00am
UPDATED : Friday, 14 October, 2011, 12:00am

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Hong Kong scientists have helped to shed light on why and how living things grow to look a certain way - why humans have five fingers on each hand, or why horses have one hoof on each leg.

The findings stem from three years of studying how organisms grow into different shapes and structures, by researchers from the University of Hong Kong, Baptist University, the University of California in San Diego and the University of Marburg in Germany.

'We now understand the logic behind why and how living organisms form in certain ways, which brings us closer to being able to control how things will grow,' said Dr Huang Jiandong, the main researcher. The research contributes to our understanding of how patterns are formed in natural organisms, allowing us to possibly control them, he said.

The findings explain some basic principles in biology, which are crucial for developing regenerative medicine such as growing organs and tissues, or using stem cells to repair damaged organs. However, Huang said the findings were still far from being applied to medicine, as the study was only done on a very basic form of bacteria.

The researchers designed a synthetic genetic programme and applied it to E coli bacteria, successfully controlling how it grew.

The research was easily able to alter the number of stripes formed by the bacteria.

The findings are published in the current issue of Science, a leading international scientific research journal.

The research found that patterns, such as the hundreds of vertebrae in a snake's spinal column, are formed by specific genetic formulas. In nature, repetitive patterns and structures are precisely controlled.

Researchers have uncovered a basic principle that will allow them to control and form a pattern by tweaking and changing bits of its genetic formula.

These insights will be useful for further research in genetics and medicine.