Well, December proved to be rather more busy than anticipated, what with moving house and getting tonsillitis etc….and whilst I’m on the excuses, this is going to be a very busy term for me. So let’s start the New Year with a very short little post about my own favourite subject, developmental biology.

Researchers have compiled a 3D atlas of human embryology by making interactive three-dimensional digital reconstructions based on microscopically sectioned human embryos. It covers the first two months of gestation, in which the major organ systems and body plan are established, and it’s well worth a look and free to access. You can download interactive PDFs. I’ve spent ages playing with them. From the related Science paper:

We created a three-dimensional digital atlas and database spanning the first 2 months of human development, based on analysis of nearly 15,000 histological sections of the renowned Carnegie Collection of human embryonic specimens. We identified and labeled up to 150 organs and structures per specimen and made three-dimensional models to quantify growth, establish changes in the position of organs, and clarify current ambiguities. The atlas provides an educational and reference resource for studies on early human development, growth, and congenital malformations.

Even if you have no real clue about the biology it will give you an appreciation of the complexity of the early embryo and is frankly quite beautiful in places; don’t be surprised how little like a human it looks like in the early stages (it does in fact look very like the chick embryos I used to work on; evolutionary conservation in action). If you are a developmental biologist, it’s a useful resource and quite fascinating.

There are still huge amounts we don’t know about human development in particular (as compared to model organisms such as mice). One of the things that can be surprisingly hard to work out is what embryonic tissue an adult organ is derived from, not to mention the complex process of, say, making a kidney from a little tube. Studies like this are really illuminating these processes and advancing our understanding of ourselves.


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