In December, Science announced its 2018 Breakthrough of the Year, which highlighted a trio of innovations in tracking embryo development cell by cell. These breakthroughs are the result of technical advances that allow scientists to isolate large numbers of cells from a living organism, sequence the genetic material inside each cell, and track the movement of the cells over time to understand better how they work together to create complex organs — creating great potential for new discoveries in basic research and medicine.
This breakthrough work follows the 2002 Nobel Prize-winning research of John Sulston, who studied the developing roundworm. By painstakingly tracking each cell during subsequent cell divisions, Sulston was able to determine the complete cell lineage of the embryo. One of my own papers examined the cell lineage of a mouse embryo by focusing on a gene that, when mutated, disrupted its development.
Just last year, scientists revolutionized single-cell analysis and tracking using advanced technology. Through research studies using cells from organisms such as flatworms, fish, and frogs, investigators discovered new cell types and developmental trajectories previously unknown. We now know, for example, that some damaged tissue reverts to an embryonic or undifferentiated state, allowing the cells to build a new limb from scratch. Engineered markers make it possible to track cells and understand their molecular states as they develop into a complex organism.
Although these techniques cannot be used in developing human embryos, similar approaches have led to an international consortium that is defining the Human Cell Atlas — an effort to identify every human cell type, where it is located in the body, and how cells integrate to form organs.
I am proud of the innovative work of my colleagues here at UNC who are contributing to the understanding of cell movement and development. Amy Gladfelter, for example, studies how cells organize in time and space. Bob Goldstein examines how cells move to specific positions during development. Amy Maddox combines high-resolution microscopy with other techniques to study cell shape changes. Paul Maddox combines quantitative image analysis with other high-resolution techniques to study cell division. Jim Bear uses live-cell microscopy to track migration of cells to understand development of tissue architecture. Sreeja Asokan has developed microfluidic assays to study cell migration in response to external cues.
Because of the technological advances and the computational ability to integrate data, many exciting breakthroughs in both normal and abnormal cell development are leading to a greater understanding of disease. I am delighted to witness this revolution and eager to see the discoveries yet to be made.