Dutch researchers create most detailed human embryo scans ever

Researchers from the Netherlands have compiled 3D digital models of the first eight weeks of a human embryo’s development – a project which took them roughly 45,000 hours to produce and which was detailed in a study published online late last week in the journal Science.

According to the Guardian and the Daily Mail, the digital models were created by a group of 75 scientists led by Bernadette de Bakker from the University of Amsterdam, and features data from 150,000 tissue section samples, some of which were nearly a century old.

Using this information, de Bakker and her colleagues were able to identify around 150 different organs and structures, including their initial positions, how the positions changed as the embryo developed and how a human fetus is different from mouse or chicken embryos. The team created a total of 14 interactive 3D PDF files, all of which can viewed online at the Atlas website.

“Everyone thinks we already know this, but I believe we know more about the moon than about our own development,” de Bakker told the Guardian on Thursday. In fact, she explained, many of the descriptions of human embryo development used in academic textbooks have been based on decades-old observations, or details inferred from studies on other types of creatures.

Guide could be ‘invaluable’ to future studies, experts say

The researchers behind the Atlas project analyzed digital photographs of thousands of stained tissue sections obtained from the Carnegie Institute of Washington’s embryo collection, which were gathered by doctors during procedures such as hysterectomies, the Guardian explained.

Using these images, the scientists created 3D digital models of human embryos at various stages of development that take place between stage 7 and 23 (15 till 60 days of development) in actual human embryos, with the goal of detailing the changes that occur early on in the development of a fetus. Each section was carefully recreated and labeled by the 75-scientist team.

embryo development

Embryos at 6, 8 and 9.5 weeks. Credit:: Bernadette de Bakker/ Academic Medical Center in Amsterdam

“It is important to understand normal human embryology to clarify how inborn defects and congenital malformations occur,” de Bakker told the Guardian, adding that the work had already proved fruitful, as her team “discovered that some organs in humans develop [much] earlier than they first arrive in chick or mouse embryos,” while others were found to develop far later, which could impact drug toxicology studies that use non-human embryos as test models.

University of Cambridge professor of mammalian development and stem cell biology Magdalena Zernicka-Goetz, who was not involved in the creation of the Atlas, said that it was  “a beautifully careful assessment of development through analysis of material with limited availability,” telling the Guardian  that it would “provide an invaluable atlas to guide future study.”

“Currently, the widely accepted limit for human embryo culture is 14 days or in other words immediately prior to gastrulation” she added. “Given our great ignorance of the mechanisms of human development through these stages and the great value to be gained for the understanding and treatment of developmental diseases and for stem cell biology, there is a strong scientific argument for more discussion about the possibility of extending this limit.”


Image credit: Bernadette de Bakker/ Academic Medical Center in Amsterdam