Think of it like a tiny aerial on a remote-controlled toy. But instead of picking up radio signals, the miniscule primary cilium found on the outside of almost all cells picks up signals from the surrounding environment, prompting the cell to respond.

A zoologist by training, Associate Professor Tony Poole (Department of Medical and Surgical Sciences) was familiar with cilia being used by minute organisms for propulsion and feeding. As he moved into human biomedical research, he was surprised to find cilia in dense connective tissues like cartilage, bone and tendon.

"I eventually hypothesised that it was a cellular cybernetic probe used for information gathering and 'blackbox' processing, to produce co-ordinated cellular responses. Instead of propelling, this cilium was static, being pulled by the surrounding environment and signalling changes to the cell."

In connective tissues it senses mechanical load, sending signals to the cell to stimulate the appropriate growth in the right direction.

Poole's research now includes the role of cilia in the cells that line the kidney's nephrons, where the cilia sense the flow of fluid. The failure of the cilium appears to trigger a range of diseases known as the ciliopathies and Poole has received funding to investigate its role in polycystic kidney disease, which affects one in 500 people.

"Each of these diseases is characterised by excessive connective tissue fibrosis which supports the growing cysts," he says.

"If primary cilia can't sense the mechanical forces anymore, the cells make excessive fibrotic tissue which chokes the kidney, causing renal failure. Dialysis or transplant remain the only options after this point.

"Our research aims to understand the role of primary cilia mechanosensation in the formation of fibrosis, offering a potential new target to control or reduce the connective tissue fibrosis common in many diseases."

Funding