Heads or tails? Stem cells help guide the decision

Two cell embryo

There are many unknown elements for what triggers the cells in an embryo to start dividing and multiplying and becoming every single cell in the body. Now researchers at the Gladstone Institutes in San Francisco have uncovered one of those elements, how embryos determine which cells become the head and which the tail.

In this CIRM-funded study the Gladstone team, led by Dr. Todd McDevitt, discovered almost by chance how the cells align in a heads-to-tail arrangement.

Todd McDevitt

They had created an organoid made from brain cells when they noticed that some of the cells were beginning to gather in an elongated fashion, in the same way that spinal cords do in a developing fetus.

In a news article, Nick Elder, a graduate student at Gladstone and the co-author of the study, published in the journal Development, says this was not what they had anticipated would happen: “Organoids don’t typically have head-tail directionality, and we didn’t originally set out to create an elongating organoid, so the fact that we saw this at all was very surprising.”

Further study enabled the team to identify which molecules were involved in signaling specific genes to switch on and off. These were similar to the process previously identified in developing mouse embryos.

“This is such a critical point in the early development of any organism, so having a new model to observe it and study it in the lab is very exciting,” says McDevitt.

This is not just of academic interest either, it could have real world implications in helping understand what causes miscarriages or birth defects.

“We can use this organoid to get at unresolved human developmental questions in a way that doesn’t involve human embryos,” says Dr. Ashley Libby, another member of the team. “For instance, you could add chemicals or toxins that a pregnant woman might be exposed to, and see how they affect the development of the spinal cord.”