A luminescent portrait of cell movements in a developing embryo

Imagine if you could track the movement of every single cell in a developing embryo, discovering what each undifferentiated cell turned into. It could allow you to reverse-engineer the construction of an organism. University of Cambridge zoology researcher Matt Benton is tracking the movements in beetle embryos using movies like this one, observing the way cells move in the hope that we can untangle the mystery of embryonic development - and maybe evolutionary development, too.


Says Benton:

I am studying the embryonic development of the beetle, Tribolium castaneum. During development in this beetle, a large number cells must move together at a certain location of the egg to form the embryo proper. At the same time, other cells move to overlap the forming embryo, to protect it and help it grow. Currently, we only have a basic understanding of how these different groups of cells move. In my work I am trying to extend this understanding, and to learn how the movements of different groups of cells are controlled and coordinated. Together with the group of Michalis Averof, I am developing methods to allow the movements of these cells to be seen in live embryos. The beetle shown in this video has been genetically modified so that the nucleus of each cell is labelled with a fluorescent protein. By using a certain microscope, I am able to record the movements of these cells in 3D, as the embryo develops. Many thanks to Michalis Averof for creating the nuclear-green fluorescent protein transgenic line shown in the movie, and to my PhD supervisor, Michael Akam, for supporting my work.

The width of this egg is 300 micrometres, and the length is 600 micrometres, roughly three times the width of a human hair.

The time span of the movie is about 5.5 hours.

Music by Sophie Smith

This is the eighth in a series of videos called Under the Microscope, which io9 is posting in partnership with scientists at University of Cambridge. Under the Microscope is a collection of videos that capture glimpses of the natural and artificial world in stunning close-up. They will be released every Monday and Thursday for the next couple of months, and you can see the whole series here.



embryology was always my favorite of the basic subjects in medical school. it was always overwhelming, humbling and amazing to see, class after class, how a bunch of highly undifferentiated cells turned into such a complex biological system as a whole human being. it was also astonishing to see how cells positioned themselves in time and space in such a way as to eventually evolve into specialized organs and organ systems. this video somehow reminded me of that :). thanks, annalee!