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A leap forward in developmental genomics

Embryo

30 April 2020

Researchers create the first complete description of early embryo development.

Muriel Cozier

Researchers from the European Molecular Biology Laboratory Heidelberg and the University of Padua School of Medicine, Italy, have created a ‘virtual embryo’ which they say, for the first time, has allowed a full description of gene expression and morphology of an embryo from a single cell to the 64-cell stage. To generate this ‘comprehensive atlas’, researchers combined high-resolution single-cell transcriptomics and light-sheet imaging, their work is published in the journal Cell.

The researchers constructed a virtual embryo of the marine organism Phallusia mammillata. The species was selected as a model because it is related to vertebrates and each individual has the same number of cells, making it easier to combine observations from many specimens.

This new development will help provide answers to questions such as ‘How are the many different cell types in the body generated during embryonic development from an egg? This is one of the fundamental questions in biology.’ The research team said.

Despite recent advances in the field, a complete representation of embryonic development, accounting for every single cell in space and time, has not been achieved until now. Dr Hanna Sladitschek, from the University of Padua School of Medicine first author of the study said ‘So far we have lacked a comprehensive understanding of the gene expression programmes. These instruct individual cells to form the different cell types necessary to build and embryo.’

One interesting observations was that while gene expression is generally considered to show an element of randomness (referred to as being noisy) the results indicated that the process is ‘remarkably reproducible and coordinated across cells in a given embryo.’ This, say the research team raises questions such as ‘How does the embryo coordinate between the two mirror-symmetric halves?’

Describing the latest development as a ‘leap forward in the emerging field of developmental genomics,’ the researchers are interested in extending their work to mammals.

Cell DOI:10.1016/j.cell.2020.03.055

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