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New approaches for studying the self-organization of biological shape
Eyal Karzbrun, University of California, Santa Barbara
Our organs exhibit complex and precise shapes which emerge during embryonic development. A central question is how the physical form of an organ self-organizes from the collective activity of its constituents - thousands of fluctuating microscopic biological cells. While we know a lot about the genetic programs which guide organ formation, we have a limited understanding of the mesoscale mechanical forces which shape organs. Establishing a physical framework for understanding organ shape across scales requires a tight interplay between experiment and theory. However, organ development occurs within the embryo, an extraordinarily complex and coupled system with limited experimental access. To address this challenge, we developed a minimal quantitative system to study the dynamics of organ shape formation in a dish. By combining materials science with stem-cell research tools, we recreated the formation of the human neural tube - the first milestone in brain development. Experiments and vertex-model simulations reveal that a wetting transition can explain the complex dynamics of neural tube formation. Our approach paves the way for a predictive understanding of human organ formation in health and disease.