Tim Mohun. 3D image of a developing mouse head at embryonic stage E14.5.

We want to find out how the heart develops in the womb so that we can understand what goes wrong when babies are born with heart problems and in adult heart disease.

Building a heart is a complicated process, starting very early during development as an embryo grows in the womb. To begin with it is little more than a pulsing tube full of blood, which gradually twists and grows into a complex four-chambered pump.

This transformation is very complex and is directed by many different genes and molecular signals. Mistakes in any part of the process can lead to disabling or life-threatening problems, so it’s not surprising that heart abnormalities are the most common type of birth defect found in babies.

Using frog and mouse embryos as models for human development, we are studying the genes involved in building a heart. We want to know how they direct the growth and movement of different groups of cells as the heart forms and find out how faults in important genes lead to heart defects. And we also want to know whether faults in the same genes are involved in heart disease in adults.

By bringing together genetic studies with high-powered three-dimensional imaging technology we are building an incredibly detailed picture of the heart as it grows. Our results are helping to explain the origins of devastating birth defects and life-threatening adult heart diseases, pointing towards future tests and treatments.