It’s like trying to capture, and then recreate, a moment in time: the exact instant after fertilization when a small group of dividing cells begin to organize themselves into the various cellular layers that will one day make up the skin, the heart, the liver and the brain. But for all the advances in our understanding of how an embryonic stem cell grows, matures and differentiates—scientists still can’t replicate that very important process in the lab.
But now, scientists at The Rockefeller University have tried something new, and in so doing have finally found a way to stimulate this organization, thus mimicking in a petri dish what happens in the human embryo. The missing ingredient, the researchers found, wasn’t a molecule or chemical compound. Rather, the team just had to use a bit of geometry.
Reporting in the June 29 issue of the journal Nature Methods, the Rockefeller team—led by Dr. Ali Brivanlou—describes how they constructed microscopic circular patterns on glass plates that confined embryonic stem cells inside, similar to a hedge maze.
To their amazement, the cells confined within these patterns soon began to go through gastrulation, the process by which embryonic stem cells begin to form highly organized layers that eventually mature into the body’s various organs and tissues. A second group of cells not confined within these patterns, however, did not.
The next question they had to figure out, according to the researchers, was why.
To solve this mystery, Brivanlou and his team next monitored specific chemical signals between the cells as they matured. In so doing they uncovered a delicate arrangement of chemical cues—molecular ‘on-and-off-switches’—that guided each cell down one developmental path as opposed to another. What were crucial to these cues going off without a hitch, the researchers found, were the geometric patterns.
As Dr. Aryeh Warmflash, one of the paper’s lead authors, stated in this week’s news release:
“At the fundamental level, what we have developed is a new model to explore how human embryonic stem cells first differentiate into separate populations with a very reproducible spatial order just as in an embryo. We can now follow individual cells in real time in order to find out what makes them specialize, and we can begin to ask questions about the underlying genetics of the process.”
“Understanding what happens in this moment, when individual members of this mass of embryonic stem cells begin to specialize for the very first time and organize themselves into layers, will be key to harnessing the promise of regenerative medicine.”