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Tracking the cell: Scientists reconstruct animal development

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U.S. researchers say they've developed a computation method that lets them track individual cells inside a developing embryo, from a small group of cells into a compete nervous system.

The new computer software will allow scientists to follow an individual cell at any selected point in its development and then trace its processes forward and backward during the embryo's growth, they say.

"We want to reconstruct the elemental building plan of animals, tracking each cell from very early development until late stages, so that we know everything that has happened in terms of cell movement and cell division," research group leader Phillipp Keller says.

"Ultimately, we would like to collect the developmental history of every cell in the nervous system and link that information to the cell's final function."

The researchers imaged individual cells in a developing fruit fly embryo with powerful, high-speed microscopes, then used the newly developed computation program to track their movements in three dimensions, they reported in the journal Nature Methods.

For the nervous system in a fruit fly embryo to become functional takes a full day, so the researchers had to capture tens of thousands of images of cells at thousands of instants, creating terabytes image of data.

"We can get good image data sets, but if we want to reconstruct them, this is something that we can't really do without help from the computer," Keller says.

The computer program they've come up with is so fast it allows them to identify and then track dividing cells as quickly as the microscopes can capture their images, the researchers say.

The outcome is information about any single cell's lineage, they say.

"You know the path, you know where it is at a certain time point," Keller says. "You know it divided at a certain point, you know the daughter cells, you know what mother cell it came from."

Observing the development of a fruit fly embryo, the research team was able to trace the lineages of almost 300 nerve cell precursors called neuroblasts and was able to predict their future function and fate from their early dynamic, three-dimensional behavior.

"Ultimately, we would like to collect the developmental history of every cell in the nervous system and link that information to the cell's final function," Keller says.

The ability to observe in great detail the cell in a developing embryo, where it goes right and where it possibly can go wrong, may eventually yield important insights into the origins of human diseases, the researchers say.

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