During embryonic development, epithelial sheets fold into complex structures required for tissue and organ functions. Although substantial efforts have been devoted to identifying molecular mechanisms underlying epithelial folding, far less is understood about how forces deform individual cells to sculpt the overall sheet morphology. Here we describe a simple and general theoretical model for the autonomous folding of monolayered epithelial sheets. We show that active modulation of intracellular mechanics along the basal-lateral as well as the apical surfaces is capable of inducing fold formation in the absence of buckling instability. Apical modulation sculpts epithelia into shallow and V-shaped folds, whereas basal-lateral modulation generates deep and U-shaped folds. These characteristic tissue shapes remain unchanged when subject to mechanical perturbations from the surroundings, illustrating that the autonomous folding is robust against environmental variabilities. At the cellular scale, how cells change shape depends on their initial aspect ratios and the modulation mechanisms. Such cell deformation characteristics are verified via experimental measurements for a canonical folding process driven by apical modulation, indicating that our theory could be used to infer the underlying folding mechanisms based on experimental data. The mechanical principles revealed in our model could potentially guide future studies on epithelial folding in diverse systems.
Financed by the National Centre for Research and Development under grant No. SP/I/1/77065/10 by the strategic scientific research and experimental development program:
SYNAT - “Interdisciplinary System for Interactive Scientific and Scientific-Technical Information”.