Key control mechanism allows cells to form tissues and anatomical structures in the developing embryo

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Sticking together
Determination of neural progenitor cell-cell de-adhesion forces using micropipette aspiration. Credit: IST Austria

Under a microscope, the first few hours of every multicellular organism’s life seem incongruously chaotic. After fertilization, a once tranquil single-celled egg divides again and again, quickly becoming a visually tumultuous mosh pit of cells jockeying for position inside the rapidly growing embryo.


Yet, amid this apparent pandemonium, cells begin to self-organize. Soon, spatial patterns emerge, serving as the foundation for the construction of tissues, organs and elaborate anatomical structures from brains to toes and everything in between. For decades, scientists have intensively studied this process, called morphogenesis, but it remains in many ways enigmatic.

Now, researchers at Harvard Medical School and the Institute of Science and Technology (IST) Austria have discovered a key control mechanism that cells use to self-organize in early embryonic development. The findings, published in Science on Oct. 2, shed light on a process fundamental to multicellular life and open new avenues for improved tissue and organ engineering strategies.

Studying spinal cord formation in zebrafish embryos, a team co-led by Sean Megason, professor of systems biology in the Blavatnik Institute at HMS, revealed that different cell types express unique combinations of adhesion molecules in order to self-sort during morphogenesis. These “adhesion codes” determine which cells prefer to stay connected, and how strongly they do so, even as widespread cellular rearrangements occur in the developing embryo.

The researchers found that adhesion codes are regulated by morphogens, master signaling molecules long known to govern cell fate and pattern formation in development. The results suggest that the interplay of morphogens and adhesion properties allows cells to organize with the precision and consistency required to construct an organism.

“My lab’s goal is to understand the basic design principles of biological form,” said Megason, co-corresponding author on the

Aerosol Container Market Outlooks 2020: Industry Analysis, Top Players, Latest Developments in Manufacturing Technology and Cost Structures

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Sep 26, 2020 (Market Insight Reports) —
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