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New research reveals how our bodies form from chaos

New research published recently by 2018 Schmidt Science Fellow Dr. Mattia Serra in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences is revealing how our complex bodies develop from a single cell. Mattia and colleagues at Harvard University have applied mathematical techniques from fluid dynamics and chaos theory to imaging data to understand how cells organize themselves during embryonic development in seemingly chaotic flows to form organs, limbs, and our bodies.

The new paper shares the results of Mattia’s work during his Fellowship placement in the group of L Mahadevan at Harvard University.

The coordinated movement of cells, all beginning with a single dividing cell in the process of embryogenesis, to organize into the different organs, limbs, and parts of our bodies appear mysterious. This research utilized imaging data of fruit fly and chicken embryos from collaborating groups at the University of California Santa Barbara and the University of Dundee to apply their mathematical framework and create a map of a developing embryo. Crucially, this map not only allowed them to plot how cells moved and organized but to predict this movement early on. Being able to predict which cells will organize into which parts of the body may allow us to understand and even treat certain diseases at the very early stages.

Cell movements in a fruit-fly embryo during early embryonic development. (Video courtesy of Sebastian Streichan/University of California, Santa Barbara)

Mattia commented on this research: “The workings of embryogenesis, the process by which the complexity of the body self-organizes from a single dividing cell, is a fundamental question of biology. We applied mathematical techniques to a biology question to generate new insights into how the body develops and this may help in the future to tackle diseases at the very earliest stages. It is a demonstration of the power of interdisciplinarity, applying tools across different areas of science and looking at problems from fresh and potentially surprising perspectives.”

Read more about this work in this Harvard University news story.

Learn more about Mattia’s research and his life in the We Are Schmidt Science Fellows film and feature, ‘Organizing Chaos – Using maths to identify coherency in chaotic systems’.