How single cells give rise to complex organisms

All the essential information on how a whole multicellular organism develops from a single cell is stored in that organism's genome and epigenome. Thousands of genes are switched on and off in a precisely coordinated manner.

A four-day-old mouse embryo
A four-day-old mouse embryo before it embeds itself in the womb. The cells that will make the connection to the womb are marked in blue. The cells that will give rise to the embryo are marked in orange, and the cells’ membranes are labeled in purple.

This enables individual cells to specialise in particular tasks and to arrange themselves into tissues and organs in the right locations. The developmental process is also influenced by environmental factors, such as the availability of nutrients.

Scientists at EMBL investigate the processes associated with embryo and organism development. They try to understand how embryos transition from a ball of identical cells to structured organisms with highly specialised tissues. The influence of mechanical stimuli and environmental factors on development are also investigated. EMBL scientists try to understand how biological rhythms create waves of activity of genes or signalling molecules, which helps to establish regular structures and tells organs where to form. Alongside traditional lab methods, bioinformatics approaches are also used to explore the processes of development.

EMBL units researching development

Developmental biology

Scientists in the Developmental biology unit seek to understand the fundamental principles that govern multicellular development.

Genome biology

The Genome biology unit uses and develops cutting-edge methods to study how the information in our genome is regulated, processed, and utilised, and how its alteration leads to disease.

Tissue biology and disease modelling

Scientists at EMBL Barcelona use advanced technologies to observe, manipulate, and model how changes in genes percolate through cells, tissues, and organs, in health and disease.

View all EMBL research units

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From microscopy to mycology, from development to disease modelling, EMBL researchers cover a wide range of topics in the biological sciences.