The human intestine is a marvel of morphology, meandering 21 feet inside the abdomen, with a miniature forest of finger-like projections called villi covering its inner surface. Now a team including L. Mahadevan, Ph.D., a Wyss Institute Founding Core Faculty Member, has uncovered the forces that direct that forest to develop.

Mahadevan, who is also the Lola England de Valpine Professor of Applied Mathematics, a Professor of Organismic and Evolutionary Biology, and Professor of Physics at Harvard, uses the tools of applied mathematics, physics, engineering, and biology to uncover how matter is shaped, how it flows – and how its shape and flow are controlled: How does a cucumber tendril coil and wind? How do objects get stuck on a sticky surface? How do soap films form and deform?

More recently, Mahadevan, who goes by "Maha," has investigated the forces that shape the gut. In 2011, he and his collaborators reported in Nature that the small intestine forms loops, much as a piece of paper curls when part of it is moistened. It and the tissue that anchors it grow at different rates, which cause the growing gut to curve.