Research Press Release

Embryology: A new model of early human development


June 11, 2020

A new three-dimensional tissue culture model of early embryonic development in humans is revealed in this week’s Nature. The model, using human cells, may help researchers to expand their understanding of this important stage of development.

Early in development, when the human embryo is a tiny ball of cells, it folds in on itself to form a three-layered structure with a front and a back end, called a gastrula. This process is called gastrulation, and the layers go on to form the various different tissue types in the body. Three-dimensional models have been made using mouse cells, but the study of human gastrulation has been more difficult owing to a lack of suitable models.

Alfonso Martinez Arias and colleagues report the generation of three-dimensional ‘gastruloid’ structures from human embryonic stem cells. The gastruloids, which consist of aggregates of human embryonic stem cells grown in suspension, recapitulate key events from early human development. The cells differentiate to form derivatives of the three characteristic layers, and the gastruloids elongate so they have a front and a back end. Key changes in gene expression are also observed, and the authors propose that a 3-day-old gastruloid mimics certain key features of a 20-day-old human embryo. They suggest that this model represents a first step towards modelling of the emergence of the human body plan in a three-dimensional context.


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