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Zen Teachings of the Fibroblast

Some cells in your body are glucose-guzzling speed freaks — neurons, muscle fibers, hepatocytes — each of them humming or jolting or twitching in a frenzy.  Other cells — osteocytes, adipocytes —  prefer a more stately existence, burying themselves in rock walls or wire cages.  But which cell is the chillest, most limber, most even-keel creature in the wilderness of your tissues?  The fibroblast.

If your body is a temple, then the fibroblast is your landscaper.  Always trimming and building things, it is usually found hiding amongst your collagen strands.  It can change shape but it doesn’t engulf other cells, like the gluttonous macrophage.  It moves slowly, lives off the land, helps out when needed.  Like an old gardener, it sometimes gets a little trance-like, fixated in one posture.  Then someone needs to tug on its feet.

The point is, you could learn a lot of lessons from observing a fibroblast:

1. Maintain a Fluid Sense of Self

Fibroblasts are usually monkeying around in the extracellular matrix, bending and twisting between more stationary structures.  Their most typical shape is vaguely like a yam with roots growing outward (dendritic), but when necessary they spread out like pillowcases or pancakes (lamellar).  Sometimes they act as lone agents, and sometimes they link up their tiny feet (lamellipodia) and form a continuous cellular identity.  Fibroblasts will merge and separate, contort and reform, tense and relax — whatever life asks of them.

2. Sculpt your Stressors

Fibroblasts understand that life depends on stress.  The central task of living is not stress avoidance, but honing a beautiful equilibrium between opposing forces.  Dotingly they lay down an array of different fibers and gobble up fibers that have become obsolete.  If fibroblasts display any excess, it’s a obsession with tensional balance.

4. Stir the Pot

Sometimes the soup of life needs a little mixing, thickening, spicing, and fibroblasts accomplish all three. As master chefs of hyaluronan (that magical elixir of mole rat immortality), they can adjust the interstitial fluid content to best aid the nutrition, excretion, and protection of local cells.

5. Go to where the Action Is

Though essentially peaceful, fibroblasts don’t run away from a fight. When the skin breaks or a tendon ruptures, fibroblasts stream to that area, help contain the damage, and begin to lay scaffold for a rebuild.  If they run into invading cells, fibroblasts simply whisper a quiet message into the wind, and soon a firestorm of T-cells has descended upon the unwanted guests.

6. Don’t Sweat the First Draft

Fibroblasts know that perfectionism stifles creativity.  When presented with an empty space, they first dance across it and then sketch in some rough contours.  They avoid fretting over the initial structure of what they create, because they know it’ll change.  They live for the process more than its products.

7. Keep Some Cards Close To Your Chest

As much as we’ve discovered about fibroblast behavior in the last century, one gets the sense that they’re not done surprising us.  What are they doing when they form a continuous cytoplasm?  What’s got them so cranky in fibrocontractile disorders like frozen shoulder?  What role could they play in tissue regeneration?  Stay tuned.


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