On the Functions of Cellular Structures in Nature

WHY did nature evolve cellular structures?

In a previous post, I laid out a structural classification of cellular structures in nature, proposing that they fall into 6 categories. I argued that it is not always apparent to a designer what the best unit cell choice for a given application is. While most mechanical engineers have a feel for what structure to use for high stiffness or energy absorption, we cannot easily address multi-objective problems or apply these to complex geometries with spatially varying requirements (and therefore locally optimum cellular designs). However, nature is full of examples where cellular structures possess multi-objective functionality: bone is one such well-known example. To be able to assign structure to a specific function requires us to connect the two, and to do that, we must identify all the functions in play. In this post, I attempt to do just that and develop a classification of the functions of cellular structures.

Any discussion of structure in nature has to contend with a range of drivers and constraints that are typically not part of an engineer’s concern. In my discussions with biologists (including my biochemist wife), I quickly run into justified skepticism about whether generalized models associating structure and function can address the diversity and nuance in nature – and I (tend to) agree. However, my attempt here is not to be biologically accurate – it is merely to construct something that is useful and relevant enough for an engineer to use in design. But we must begin with a few caveats to ensure our assessments consider the correct biological context.

1. Uniquely Biological Considerations

Before I attempt to propose a structure-function model, there are some legitimate concerns many have made in the literature that I wish to recap in the context of cellular structures. Three of these in particular are relevant to this discussion and I list them below.

1.1 Design for Growth

Engineers are familiar with “design for manufacturing” where design considers not just the final product but also aspects of its manufacturing, which often place constraints on said design. Nature’s “manufacturing” method involves (at the global level of structure), highly complex growth – these natural growth mechanisms have no parallel in most manufacturing processes. Take for example the flower stalk in Fig 1, which is from a Yucca tree that I found in a parking lot in Arizona.

Figure 1. The flower stalk (before bloom) of a Yucca plant in Arizona with overlapping surface cellular structure (Author’s image)

At first glance, this looks like a good example of overlapping surfaces, one of the 6 categories of cellular structures I covered before. But when you pause for a moment and query the function of this packing of cells (WHY this shape, size, packing?), you realize there is a powerful growth motive for this design. A few weeks later when I returned to the parking lot, I found many of the Yucca stems simultaneously in various stages of bloom – and captured them in a collage shown in Fig 2. This is a staggering level of structural complexity, including integration with the environment (sunlight, temperature, pollinators) that is both wondrous and for an engineer, very humbling.

Figure 2. From flower stalk to seed pods, with some help from pollinators. Form in nature is often driven by demands of growth. (Author’s images)

The lesson here is to recognize growth as a strong driver in every natural structure – the tricky part is determining when the design is constrained by growth as the primary force and when can growth be treated as incidental to achieving an optimum functional objective.

1.2 Multi-functionality

Even setting aside the growth driver mentioned previously, structure in nature is often serving multiple functions at once – and this is true of cellular structures as well. Consider the tessellation of “scutes” on the alligator. If you were tasked with designing armor for a structure, you may be tempted to mimic the alligator skin as shown in Fig. 3.

Figure 3. The cellular scutes on the alligator serve more than just one function: thermal regulation, bio-protection, mobility, fluid loss mitigation are some of the multiple underlying objectives that have been proposed (CCO public domain, Attr. Republica)

As you begin to study the skin, you see it is comprised of multiple scutes that have varying shape, size and cross-sections – see Fig 4 for a close-up.

Figure 4. Close-up of alligator scutes (Attr: Hans Hillewaert, Flickr, Creative Commons)

The pattern varies spatially, but you notice some trends: there exists a pattern on the top but it is different from the sides and the bottom (not pictured here). The only way to make sense of this variation is to ask what functions do these scutes serve? Luckily for us, biologists have given this a great deal of thought and it turns out there are several: bio-protection, thermoregulation, fluid loss mitigation and unrestricted mobility are some of the functions discussed in the literature [1, 2]. So whereas you were initially concerned only with protection (armor), the alligator seeks to accomplish much more – this means the designer either needs to de-confound the various functional aspects spatially and/or expand the search to other examples of natural armor to develop a common principle that emerges independent of multi-functionality specific to each species.

1.3 Sub-Optimal Design

This is an aspect for which I have not found an example in the field of cellular structures (yet), so I will borrow a well-known (and somewhat controversial) example [3] to make this point, and that has to do with the giraffe’s Recurrent Laryngeal Nerve (RLN), which connects the Vagus Nerve to the larynx as shown in Figure 5, which it is argued, takes an unnecessarily long circuitous route to connect these two points.

Figure 5. Observe how the RLN in the giraffe emerges from the Vagus Nerve far away from the thorax: a sub-optimal design that was likely carried along through the generations in aid of prioritizing neck growth (Attr: Vladimir V. Medeyko)

We know that from a design standpoint, this is sub-optimal because we have an axiom that states the shortest distance between two points is a straight line. And therefore, the long detour the RLN makes in the giraffe’s neck must have some other evolutionary and/or developmental basis (fish do not have this detour) [3]. However, in the case of other entities such as the cellular structures we are focusing on, the complexity of the underlying design principles makes it hard to identify cases where nature has found a sub-optimal design space for the function of interest to us, in favor of other pressing needs determined by selection. What is sufficient for the present moment is to appreciate that such cases may exist and to bear them in mind when studying structure in nature.

2. Classifying Functions

Given the above challenges, the engineer may well ask: why even consider natural form in making determinations involving the design of engineering structures? The biomimic responds by reminding us that nature has had 3.8 billion years to develop a “design guide” and we would be wise to learn from it. Importantly, natural and engineering structures both exist in the same environment and are subject to identical physics and further, are both often tasked with performing similar functions. In the context of cellular structures, we may thus ask: what are the functions of interest to engineers and designers that nature has addressed through cellular design? Through my reading [1-4], I have compiled the classification of functions in Figure 6, though this is likely to grow over time.

Figure 6. A proposed classification of functions of cellular structures in nature (subject to constant change!)

This broad classification into structural and transport may seem a little contrived, but it emerges from an analyst’s view of the world. There are two reasons why I propose this separation:

  1. Structural functions involve the spatial allocation of materials in the construction of the cellular structures, while transport functions involve the structure AND some other entity and their interactions (fluid or light for example) – thus additional physics needs to be comprehended for transport functions
  2. Secondly, structural performance needs to be comprehended independent of any transport function: a cellular structure must retain its integrity over the intended lifetime in addition to performing any additional function

Each of these functions is a fascinating case study in its own right and I highly recommend the site AskNature.org [1] as a way to learn more on a specific application, but this is beyond the scope of the current post. More relevant to our high-level discussion is that having listed the various reasons WHY cellular structures are found in nature, the next question is can we connect the structures described in the previous post to the functions tabulated above? This will be the attempt of my next post. Until then, as always, I welcome all inputs and comments, which you can send by messaging me on LinkedIn.

Thank you for reading!


  1. AskNature.org
  2. Foy (1983), The grand design: Form and colour in animals, Prentice-Hall, 1st edition
  3. Dawkins (2010), The greatest show on earth: the evidence for evolution, Free Press, Reprint of 1st edition
  4. Gibson, Ashby, Harley (2010), Cellular Materials in Nature and Medicine, Cambridge University Press; 1st edition
  5. Ashby, Evans, Fleck, Gibson, Hutchinson, Wadley (2000), Metal Foams: A Design Guide, Butterworth-Heinemann, 1st edition