The University of Massachusetts Amherst is awarded a grant to develop a shared digital resource collection of finite element models of biological systems. Finite element analysis (FEA) is a computer-based technique for predicting the physical behavior of engineered products based on fundamental principles of mechanics. FEA has revolutionized engineering by allowing the design and optimization of high quality, complex products to occur completely within a digital environment. Now biologists are beginning to use FEA to understand the biomechanical behavior of biological organs, tissues and even cells. FEA has the ability to transform the way that biologists approach problems in areas ranging from functional morphology to paleobiology, developmental biology and cellular mechanics. In addition to finite element models, this resource collection will include an integrated set of web-enabled ontologies for sharing finite element modeling metadata, knowledge and mechanical property values of biological materials, interactive software tools for visualizing FEA models and results, FEA utilities supporting the development of biological finite element models, and a threaded discussion. On a broader scale, this project will capitalize on the visual appeal of FEA to inform the public's perception and understanding of the fundamental integration of biological and engineering sciences. This will be accomplished by developing fresh and exciting educational resources for use in the K-12 classroom and by contributing to college-level courses that use computational tools to teach abstract biological concepts.

Project Report

Some of the most exciting scientific discoveries come from blending different fields of study together. This is especially true when asking questions about biology. In this project we used methods borrowed from mechanical engineering to investigate the form, function and evolution of animals. All living things exist in a physical world that pushes, pulls, twists and bends them in many different directions. This is also true of the parts of large organisms, like our leg bone, which have to work together to support our whole bodies. Over the course of this project we trained biologists how to use a powerful tool developed by engineers called finite element analysis, or FEA. Engineers use it to ensure that bridges, buildings, airplanes, automobiles, computers, etc. are reliable and safe. Properly trained biologists can now use it to understand how biological systems, such as bone structures, are able to withstand the forces that the physical world exerts on them. FEA is a mathematical modeling technique that predicts how structures, in our case three-dimensional biological structures, respond to having forces applied to them. We begin by building three-dimensional digital models of the structures, typically from ct scans like those that are done in hospitals. The next step is to define the material properties of the model which determine how much it can be deformed before it will break. To run the analysis we tell the software how to hold the model in place and then apply forces to it that mimic the forces that occur in real life. The results of the analysis predict how strong structures are and how they deform when forces are applied to them. By designing thoughtful experiments, we can compare and contract how similar structures are predicted to function in different species. The primary goal of the project was to train people how to use FEA and how to apply it to test biological hypotheses. We worked with people from a wide range of backgrounds: established scientists, graduate students, college students, and high school students and their teachers. These researchers discovered many fascinating mechanical adaptations of animals. For example, some dinosaurs likely defended themselves using their tails as clubs, aquatic turtles evolved to trade the strength of their shells for lower drag in flowing water, polar bears have weaker skull than brown bears and may be outcompeted as temperatures increase and brown bears migrate northward, and our own ancestors were likely well-adapted to eat large nuts and seeds. In each case, the combination of biology and engineering was the key to making these discoveries.

National Science Foundation (NSF)
Division of Biological Infrastructure (DBI)
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Peter H. McCartney
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University of Massachusetts Amherst
United States
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