Mar. 10 - Cambridge University biologists have cracked the so-called 'black box' of embryonic development, a mystery which has long puzzled scientists. The researchers have found a way to record the earliest stages of an embryo's growth and have filmed for the first time ever, the moment of implantation, opening new possibilities for improved methods of IVF treatment and regenerative medicine. Jim Drury has more.
It's been called the 'black box' of embryonic development - the moment the embryo is implanted into the uterus. Until now scientists haven't been able to see it, relying on educated guesswork to develop theories. But University of Cambridge Professor Magdalena Zernicka-Goetz has changed that, creating a way to film these mouse embryos during implantation. Her team created a transparent gel, containing extracellular-matrix proteins, with similar elasticity to uterine tissue. When placed in a chemical solution similar to mouse uterus fluid, embryos attach to it as though it's the real thing SOUNDBITE (English) PROFESSOR MAGDALENA ZERNICKA-GOETZ, UNIVERSITY OF CAMBRIDGE, SAYING: "The gel on which they grow has to be mimicking the lining of the uterus, of course, to make them happy, but also have to be thin enough and transparent so that light will go through and allow us to film them. And we also make use of embryos in which specific important proteins are tagged with fluorescent markers, so when we shine light with specific wavelengths we can see the behaviour of these proteins and because of that we can see what the cells do." Recorded by Zernicka-Goetz and Dr Ivan Bedzhov, the videos show that during implantation the embryo changes from a small, free-floating ball of cells into a rosette formation. SOUNDBITE (English) PROFESSOR MAGDALENA ZERNICKA-GOETZ, UNIVERSITY OF CAMBRIDGE, SAYING: "We essentially found out that this organisation of those cells into these beautiful rose-like structures with petals organised in the same orientation is the starting point for our body and actually we find out also recently that it's a starting point for those cells uniformly to differentiate into the specific cell types, so now we can use it also hopefully in the future when we would like to make particular types of cells for regenerative medicine." As well as the potential for advancing our stem cell understanding, further work on the rosette structure could also impact on IVF treatment. So says Zernicka-Goetz's mentor, Nobel Prize winning developmental biologist Sir John Gurdon. SOUNDBITE (English) SIR JOHN GURDON, DEVELOPMENTAL BIOLOGIST AND NOBEL PRIZE WINNER, SAYING: "There are of course defects which occur when human embryos develop, sometimes things go wrong, and if one knows....whenever one knows more about the mechanism involved it always makes it possible to begin to find ways of getting round some of the difficulties that occur. So any basic knowledge about how mammalian embryos develop is undoubtedly valuable." Previous attempts to film implantation have all failed and Zernicka-Goetz was warned by other academics that her project would prove impossible. But after five years of research she's uncovered one of the great mysteries of embryology, and shed new light on the evolution of life.