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The anatomy of healthy humans shows much minor variation, and twin-studies reveal at least some of this variation cannot be explained genetically. A plausible explanation is that fine-scale anatomy is not specified directly in a genetic programme, but emerges from self-organizing behaviours of cells that, for example, place a new capillary where it happens to be needed to prevent local hypoxia. Self-organizing behaviour can be identified by manipulating growing tissues (e.g. putting them under a spatial constraint) and observing an adaptive change that conserves the character of the normal tissue while altering its precise anatomy. Self-organization can be practically useful in tissue engineering but it is limited; generally, it is good for producing realistic small-scale anatomy but large-scale features will be missing. This is because self-organizing organoids miss critical symmetry-breaking influences present in the embryo: simulating these artificially, for example, with local signal sources, makes anatomy realistic even at large scales. A growing understanding of the mechanisms of self-organization is now allowing synthetic biologists to take their first tentative steps towards constructing artificial multicellular systems that spontaneously organize themselves into patterns, which may soon be extended into three-dimensional shapes.
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