How the gut gets its villi

14 Oct 2013

Villi are small epithelial protrusions that serve to increase the surface area of the gut for efficient nutrient absorption. The mechanism of their formation during development was recently revealed by a study published in Science. The investigations, carried out by two research groups at Harvard University, were complemented by computational modelling carried out at the University of Jyväskylä and funded by the Academy of Finland.

Villification (villus formation) has previously been hypothesised to be based on an active mechanism coordinated by growth factors. The present study, however, shows that a simple mechanical compression of the epithelium sheet is all that it takes. The epithelium gets compressed mechanically as the surrounding layers of smooth muscle differentiate and grow slower than the epithelium. This compression leads to a spontaneous buckling of the epithelium first into longitudinal folds, then a zigzag pattern, and finally villi. The non-uniform distribution of growth factors and cell differentiation turned out to be a consequence – not a reason – of the complex epithelial topography.

Physicists and mathematicians had studied the mechanical surface instabilities essential to villification a few years earlier, but the theoretical results have not been applied before to explain the morphogenesis of biological structures at quantitative level. In a broader view, the study reminds us that even complex biological structures form just as a sequence of simple physical processes.

Dr Amy Shyer and Academy of Finland Postdoctoral Researcher Tuomas Tallinen were the lead authors of the study, carried out under Professors C. J. Tabin and L. Mahadevan. The computations were run at CSC – IT Center for Science in Finland.

E. Shyer, T. Tallinen, N. L. Nerurkar, Z. Wei, E. S. Gil, D. L. Kaplan, C. J. Tabin, and L. Mahadevan, “Villification: How the Gut Gets Its Villi”, Science 342, pp. 212–218 (2013),

Contact information: Academy of Finland Postdoctoral Researcher Tuomas Tallinen, e-mail: tuomas.tallinen(at)

Academy of Finland Communications
Communications Specialist Leena Vähäkylä
tel. +358 295 335 139

Connect with us
Facebook  Twitter YoutubeLinkedInSlideshare
SWITCHBOARD +358 295 335 000
REGISTRY +358 295 335 049
FAX +358 295 335 299
OFFICE HOURS Mon–Fri 8.00–16.15