From whales to earthworms, the mechanism that gives shape to life

Why don’t our arms grow from the middle of our bodies? The question isn’t as trivial as it appears. Vertebrae, limbs, ribs, tailbone … in only two days, all these elements take their place in the embryo, in the right spot and with the precision of a Swiss watch. Intrigued by the extraordinary reliability of this mechanism, biologists have long wondered how it works. Now, researchers at EPFL (Ecole Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne) and the University of Geneva (Unige) have solved the mystery. Their discovery will be published October 13, 2011 in the journal Science.

The embryo is built one layer at a time

During the development of an embryo, everything happens at a specific moment. In about 48 hours, it will grow from the top to the bottom, one slice at a time – scientists call this the embryo’s segmentation. “We’re made up of thirty-odd horizontal slices,” explains Denis Duboule, a professor at EPFL and Unige. “These slices correspond more or less to the number of vertebrae we have.”

Every hour and a half, a new segment is built. The genes corresponding to the cervical vertebrae, the thoracic vertebrae, the lumbar vertebrae and the tailbone become activated at exactly the right moment one after another. “If the timing is not followed to the letter, you’ll end up with ribs coming off your lumbar vertebrae,” jokes Duboule. How do the genes know how to launch themselves into action in such a perfectly synchronized manner? “We assumed that the DNA played the role of a kind of clock. But we didn’t understand how.”

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