What is tissue biology?

How does your heart beat? Why does the liver heal better than the brain? How did the bones in your leg grow to support your weight? Scientists working on tissue biology strive to answer questions like these. To do so, they combine many different perspectives. They look at how cells interact with each other and respond to their surroundings. They analyse the shape of cells. They probe chain reactions between molecules. They investigate the genes involved. And they trace the connections between these scales, unveiling how tissues develop, work, regenerate and heal.

Often, this involves developing new approaches and technologies. For instance, to track cells and molecules in a living tissue you need specially-designed technology. Microscopes developed for looking at single cells, or small groups of cells, will not be ideal. And technologies like CT scans, developed to look at a whole body part or even a whole organism, won't give you the necessary detail.  To fill this gap, scientists have designed non-invasive techniques like single-plane illumination microscopy (SPIM). With SPIM microscopes, researchers can record living tissues and organs in detail, by shining a thin light sheet on them, one layer of cells at a time. The technique enabled EMBL scientists to see a fish embryo’s beating heart for the first time, for example.

Similarly, if your experiments are to shed light on how cells interact in 3D, simply growing cells on a lab dish may not suffice. So scientists studying tissue biology are using and driving developments such as organoids – tiny balls of cells that act like miniaturised versions of an organ.

What is a tissue?

A tissue is a group of cells with a similar structure, organised to carry out specific functions. Examples of tissues: muscle, epithelial tissue (which forms your skin and the lining of your intestine). An organ like the intestine, lung or liver can contain many different types of tissues.