How is biological shape determined?
The 3D Patterning Group is a consortium of Japanese research groups, committed to characterizing the forces that create 3D biological shape and understanding the fundamental principles that lie at the heart of morphogenesis.
“So what, we might ask, are the mechanics that create biological form?”
Philip Ball (“ Shapes ”- Oxford Press, 2009)
- The sheer endless diversity of the animal kingdom never ceases to amaze. Moreover, when realizing that the creatures existing today are only a fraction of all those roaming our planet eons ago - some of them frozen into fossils, as silent witnesses of utterly different geological times - one is bound to ask whether there is a limit to the forms an animal can occupy. And of course, there is: biological form is not just the result of some random chemical or physical process, resulting fortuitously in an infinite palette of shapes. Au contraire, living creatures are molded by the never ending process of evolution into those shapes which are best adapted to those environments they have colonized. So where, we might ask, lie the boundaries by which the spectrum of all possible biological forms is defined? Which forms are possible and which ones are not? What are the rules? Are there general mechanisms by which animal shape is determined? Is Nature hiding fundamental principles from us?
Probably the best research strategy to unravel such mechanisms is by trying to understand how biological shape is created. What makes a fertilized egg develop into a gastrula? Why does the neurectoderm bend into a tube? How does a patch of cells unfold into a beautifully colored butterfly wing? Given the fact that every organism on earth shares the same genetic material, it is tempting to speculate that a few principles might control morphogenesis, in all its diversity. And indeed, several decades of intensive academic research has led to the characterization of major molecular pathways and signaling cascades controlling embryonic development in a wide variety of organisms. Many of the gene regulatory networks controlling major morphogenetic processes have been identified and a lot of research is directed towards understanding these processes in molecular detail.
Nevertheless, few biologists will deny that an all encompassing understanding of development - incorporating some organizing principles, such as the genetic code or the periodic table of elements - has not been reached thus far. Such, however is the ultimate aim of the 3D Patterning Group, a consortium of independent group leaders from several Japanese Universities and Institutes. In a collaborative effort, these research teams are trying to characterize the forces that mold a single fertilized cell into an adult organism. Unraveling the genetic and cellular machinery that controls morphogenesis will certainly contribute to its understanding. On the other hand, no matter how important, such knowledge will only provide part of the answer. Indeed, it has become increasingly clear that other forces are at play as well: physical forces that have, for too long now, been denied their legitimate status within the field of Developmental Biology. Such as contractile mechanical forces, to name but one example, which - in a complex interplay of action and reaction - provoke the tissue deformations or cellular rearrangements that collectively lie at the heart of morphogenesis.
It is by no means accidental that the members of the consortium are trained in research fields, as diverse as molecular genetics, applied mathematics, biological physics, developmental biology, biomedical engineering or computational sciences. After all, only a multidisciplinary research strategy - approaching the problem from as many angles as deemed fit - is likely to succeed in stealing from Nature one of her most preciously guarded secrets: how is biological shape determined?
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