Tufts researcher Dany Adams was filming the development of tadpole embryos, when she decided to leave the camera hooked up to a microscope going overnight. She was hoping to get some good time-lapse footage. What she got was bioelectric patterns which flashed across the developing tadpole face, outlining the future positions of eyes, nose and mouth.
“I was completely blown away.” said Dany, Ph.D, according to the Tufts press release. “I think I thought something like, ‘OK, I know what I’ll be studying for the next 20 years.” It had never been seen before, and was published in the August issue of Developmental Dynamics. Watch the video below.
“When a frog embryo is just developing, before it gets a face, a pattern for that face lights up on the surface of the embryo,” said Dany. “We believe this is the first time such patterning has been reported for an entire structure, not just for a single organ. I would never have predicted anything like it. It’s a jaw dropper.”
Bioelectric signals cause cells to form patterns marked by differences in pH levels and membrane voltage, according to the researchers. The tadpoles were stained with a reporter dye that caused negatively charged areas to shine brightly while other areas look dark.
There were three bioelectric waves they saw in the footage.
First, a wave of negative ions flashed across the whole embryo at about the same time as cilia formed, tiny hairs which allow the embryo to move.
The second flash was a patterning that matched shape changes that were soon to occur in the face region. Bright areas, negative ions, show places where the surface will fold in.
Thirdly, localised regions of bright, negative areas formed, grew and disappeared without disturbing the existing pattern. At this point, the embryo began to elongate.
If bioelectric signalling is important to embryo development, you would expect development to be altered by screwing around with the signal process – and that’s exactly what happened. The researchers disrupted signalling by inhibiting a protein involved called ductin, which transports hydrogen ions. Some embryos grew two brains, others had unusual nasal or jaw development, and so on.
Interesting, I guess, but a bit sad for the baby tadpoles imho. Plus, I feel like it doesn’t take much to disrupt embryo development. Take away any protein that’s switched on at that sensitive time and development takes a detour…
All the same, bioelectricity may play a crucial role in embryo growth. Laura Vandenberg, another author on the paper, said “developmental biologists are used to thinking of sequences in which a gene produces a protein product that in turn ultimately leads to development of an eye or a mouth. But our work suggests that something else – a bioelectrical signal – is required before that can happen.”
Vandenberg, L., Morrie, R., & Adams, D. (2011). V-ATPase-dependent ectodermal voltage and ph regionalization are required for craniofacial morphogenesis Developmental Dynamics, 240 (8), 1889-1904 DOI: 10.1002/dvdy.22685