Insights into development of different cell types in spinal cord

15 July 2014

New research reveals how the pattern of different cells in the spinal cord are produced in time and space.

Dr James Briscoe of the Medical Research Council's National Institute for Medical Research (now part of the Francis Crick Institute) explained: "The spinal cord contains many different types of cells. For nerve circuits to form correctly, these have to be produced at the right time and place during embryo development.

"The production of the different cell types is controlled by only a few signals. We found that the signals function in different combinations to control the type of cells produced.

"These combinations change during embryo development and, interestingly, it is the growth of the embryo that gradually changes the location of signal production. This alters the location at which signals intersect, resulting in the successive production of different cell types at different positions in the embryo."

For their work, the scientists combined well-established developmental biology methods, such as controlling the activity of specific genes in chick embryos and growing tiny segments of embryonic spinal cord tissue, with new genomic technologies that allowed them to measure gene activity in tissues grown in specific conditions.

This also enabled them to identify some of the genes that function within cells downstream of the signals to make the different cell types.

"How the large diversity of cell types that make an individual are produced and organised in embryos is a fundamental question in developmental biology. The spinal cord is often seen as a useful example where general principles of tissue formation can be worked out. The current work adds to our understanding of the strategies employed to increase the variety of cell types while maintaining control over the position where they form," added Dr Briscoe.

His team's findings are also likely to be relevant in other developing tissues, and could evetually help in the design of methods to produce specific cell types from stem cells.

The paper, Integration of Signals along Orthogonal Axes of the Vertebrate Neural Tube Controls Progenitor Competence and Increases Cell Diversity, is published in the PLOS Biology.

  • Scientists at the Medical Research Council's National Institute for Medical Research have found that different combinations of just a few signals control the type of cells produced in the spinal cord in a developing embryo.
  • As the embryo grows, the location of signal production gradually changes and alters the location at which signals intersect, resulting in the successive production of different cell types at different positions in the embryo.