The posterior part of the body is progressively formed from a structure called tail bud (TB). Defects in this process lead to severe birth defects such as spina bifida or caudal agenesis. The progressive elongation of the posterior body requires the generation of forces controlling TB regression and a constant supply of progenitors to generate the forming tissues. In previous work, we have shown that in the chicken embryo the process driving body elongation from the TB involves the posterior presomitic mesoderm (PSM) where cells establish a gradient of random cell motility (cell diffusion) downstream of FGF signaling (Benazeraf et al, 2010). Together with our co-PI Mahadevan, we have elaborated a new physical framework proposing that the gradient of cell diffusion acts to generate forces involved in the elongation movements much like gas particles exposed to a gradient of temperature generate pressure (Regev et al, 2017). Our models are based on a minimal number of parameters: cell diffusion gradient, rate of cell addition to the PSM, and tissue mechanical resistance, leading to a unidirectional elongation force. Here, we will measure these parameters in vivo by combining developmental biology, imaging and soft matter physics approaches with the goal of predicting the rate of embryo elongation as a function of space and time. We first propose to study the cellular basis of the cell diffusion gradient and the role of FGF signaling in its formation in vivo using time lapse imaging and perturbation strategies. We will also use biophysical approaches in the embryo to directly test whether the cell diffusion gradient in the PSM is able to generate the forces responsible for axis elongation. We will take advantage of soft-matter physics approaches to characterize the rheological properties of the PSM which constitute important elements of the physical models. An important parameter of the models is the rate of cell addition from the TB that allows the sustained elongation movements seen during embryonic development. We will use 4D-imaging in chicken and quail transgenic embryos to quantify the flow of cells from the TB to the posterior PSM. Finally, we propose to explore the cellular and mechanical aspects of the coordination of elongation between the axial TB territory containing the PSM precursors and the forming posterior PSM to try to understand how the posterior PSM propels the TB posteriorly. The findings of this proposal should lead to an in-depth understanding of the formation of posterior tissues, an understudied aspect of vertebrate development. This work will have important implications for understanding birth defects such as caudal regression syndrome and for regenerative medicine.
The goal of this project is to combine biological and physical approaches to understand the mechanical basis of body axis formation during embryonic development. This knowledge is expected to impact our understanding of birth defects of the trunk and limbs and could shed light on the biology of cancer.