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New computer software to unravel embryonic development cell by cell

Wednesday, August 06, 2014 - 02:51

Researchers at the Howard Hughes Medical Institute Janelia Research campus are using a new type of computer software to track and image how a nervous system develops in unprecedented detail. The new system is able to track individual cells during embryonic development, giving scientists a powerful to tool to create a blueprint of how brains form. Ben Gruber reports.

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INTRO: Researchers at the Howard Hughes Medical Institute Janelia Research campus are using a new type of computer software to track and image how a nervous system develops in unprecedented detail. The new system is able to track individual cells during embryonic development, giving scientists a powerful to tool to create a blueprint of how brains form. Ben Gruber reports. STORY: This is the first stage of brain development in a fruit fly embryo. It's an unprecedented view -- every single dot represents a single cell. Phillip Keller and his fellow researchers at the Janelia Research Campus in Virginia are tracking each of them as they organize into a working brain. (SOUNDBITE) (ENGLISH) JANELIA RESEARCH CAMPUS GROUP LEADER PHILLIP KELLER SAYING: "We basically want to understand how development happens. What are the fundamental principles that rule the mechanisms of development? How do you actually get from one cell to a complex multicellular organism in a very robust manner?" Answers to those questions have always eluded scientists. But now, thanks to new computer software that can process massive amounts of data in near real time, mapping how cells form into a complex nervous system is possible. A couple of years ago Keller and his group developed the simultaneous multi-view light sheet microscope which captures three-dimensional images of cells with unprecedented speed and precision over a period of days. But organizing what amounted to terabytes worth of data into visualizations the scientists could study took weeks. The new software can do it in a matter of minutes. Researcher Fernando Amat says the team have also developed a colour system that allows them to track individual cells during brain development. (SOUNDBITE) (ENGLISH) JANELIA RESEARCH CAMPUS BIOFORMATICS SPECIALIST FERNANDO AMAT SAYING: "We assign a color, a random color, to each cell at the beginning and then we propagate these colors based on the tracking information. So, what you can see is basically how each single-cell as they divide they go to different parts of the organism. And so, they become kind of colour clusters, so you see basically how each, let's say, tissue or part of the embryo where it came from. What's the original cell that it came from." And by following the paths of these cells, the scientists hope create how blueprint of how brains form. Keller says that the researchers are currently using the technology to study development in fruit flies and zebrafish. But he says even though these organisms are simple compared to the complex development of human nervous systems, there is still a lot to be learned. (SOUNDBITE) (ENGLISH) JANELIA RESEARCH CAMPUS GROUP LEADER PHILLIP KELLER SAYING: "If you compare the anatomy of a brain in a zebra fish to that of a human there are a lot of similarities, a lot of the detailed structure that's the compartments, the organization of the brain, these principles are often shared between different species. So if you learn something in one context, you can hopefully apply it in a different context. Especially, to human development." And that, says Keller, is the ultimate goal, to gain insight on how a human brain develops and functions. He says the more we know the better equipped we will be to start tackling diseases like Alzheimers and Parkinson's.

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New computer software to unravel embryonic development cell by cell

Wednesday, August 06, 2014 - 02:51