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In this section, you will explore the following questions:

  • What are the stages in the process of organogenesis in vertebrate animals?
  • What are the anatomical axes in vertebrates and their significance in development?

Connection for AP® Courses

The information in this section is not within the scope of AP®. The formation of organs from embryonic germ layers results from the expression of specific sets of genes that determine cell type. Organogenesis has been studied in the laboratory using the fruit fly (Drosophila) and the nematode Caenorhabditis elegans. In vertebrates, one of the primary steps during organogenesis is the formation of the neural system from embryonic ectoderm. Formation of body axes (lateral-medial, dorsal-ventral, and anterior-posterior) is another important developmental stage under genetic control.

Information presented and examples highlighted in this section are not within the scope for AP® and do not align to the Curriculum Framework.

Gastrulation leads to the formation of the three germ layers that give rise, during further development, to the different organs in the animal body. This process is called organogenesis. Organogenesis is characterized by rapid and precise movements of the cells within the embryo.

Organogenesis

Organs form from the germ layers through the process of differentiation. During differentiation, the embryonic stem cells express specific sets of genes which will determine their ultimate cell type. For example, some cells in the ectoderm will express the genes specific to skin cells. As a result, these cells will differentiate into epidermal cells. The process of differentiation is regulated by cellular signaling cascades.

Scientists study organogenesis extensively in the lab in fruit flies (Drosophila) and the nematode Caenorhabditis elegansDrosophilahave segments along their bodies, and the patterning associated with the segment formation has allowed scientists to study which genes play important roles in organogenesis along the length of the embryo at different time points. The nematode C.elegans has roughly 1000 somatic cells and scientists have studied the fate of each of these cells during their development in the nematode life cycle. There is little variation in patterns of cell lineage between individuals, unlike in mammals where cell development from the embryo is dependent on cellular cues.

In vertebrates, one of the primary steps during organogenesis is the formation of the neural system. The ectoderm forms epithelial cells and tissues, and neuronal tissues. During the formation of the neural system, special signaling molecules called growth factors signal some cells at the edge of the ectoderm to become epidermis cells. The remaining cells in the center form the neural plate. If the signaling by growth factors were disrupted, then the entire ectoderm would differentiate into neural tissue.

The neural plate undergoes a series of cell movements where it rolls up and forms a tube called the neural tube, as illustrated in Figure 34.25. In further development, the neural tube will give rise to the brain and the spinal cord.

Illustration shows a flat sheet. The middle of the sheet is the neural plate, and the epidermis is at either end. The neural plate border separates the neural tube from the epidermis. During convergence the plate folds, bringing the neural folds together. The neural folds fuse, joining the neural plate into a neural tube. The epidermis separates and folds around the outside.
Figure 34.25The central region of the ectoderm forms the neural tube, which gives rise to the brain and the spinal cord.

The mesoderm that lies on either side of the vertebrate neural tube will develop into the various connective tissues of the animal body. A spatial pattern of gene expression reorganizes the mesoderm into groups of cells called somites with spaces between them. The somites, illustrated in Figure 34.26 will further develop into the ribs, lungs, and segmental (spine) muscle. The mesoderm also forms a structure called the notochord, which is rod-shaped and forms the central axis of the animal body.

 Embryo resembles a segmented earthworm with a bulging head.
Figure 34.26In this five-week old human embryo, somites are segments along the length of the body. (credit: modification of work by Ed Uthman)

Vertebrate Axis Formation

Even as the germ layers form, the ball of cells still retains its spherical shape. However, animal bodies have lateral-medial (left-right), dorsal-ventral (back-belly), and anterior-posterior (head-feet) axes, illustrated in Figure 34.27.

Illustration shows a fish dissected by lines into anterior (front) and posterior (rear) ends and dorsal (top) and ventral (bottom) surfaces.
Figure 34.27Animal bodies have three axes for symmetry. (credit: modification of work by NOAA)

How are these established? In one of the most seminal experiments ever to be carried out in developmental biology, Spemann and Mangold took dorsal cells from one embryo and transplanted them into the belly region of another embryo. They found that the transplanted embryo now had two notochords: one at the dorsal site from the original cells and another at the transplanted site. This suggested that the dorsal cells were genetically programmed to form the notochord and define the axis. Since then, researchers have identified many genes that are responsible for axis formation. Mutations in these genes leads to the loss of symmetry required for organism development.

Animal bodies have externally visible symmetry. However, the internal organs are not symmetric. For example, the heart is on the left side and the liver on the right. The formation of the central left-right axis is an important process during development. This internal asymmetry is established very early during development and involves many genes. Research is still ongoing to fully understand the developmental implications of these genes.