Analyzing and modeling cell contraction mechanisms during development of the frog Xenopus

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About Analyzing and modeling cell contraction mechanisms during development of the frog Xenopus


During embryonic development, thousands of cells work together to form the three-dimensional structure of the embryo. Cells exert forces on each other and on the protein matrices that surround them to shape the embryo. This project focuses on coordinated cell contraction, which contributes to various shape-generating mechanisms, including gastrulation and the formation of the neural tube.

In close collaboration with the group of Dr. Lance Davidson, at the University of Pittsburgh, PA, USA, we are analyzing coordinated cell contraction in isolated epithelial sheets of the embryo of the frog Xenopus laevis. In epithelial sheets, cells are tightly connected to each other. After killing one of the cells with a laser beam (laser ablation), the remaining empty space expands rapidly, as if the surrounding tissue is under tension. Time-lapse videos have revealed that epithelial cells within an area of up to ten cell diameters around the ablated cell contract within three minutes after laser ablation. It is unclear what signal induces cells to contract in response to laser ablation. Preliminary experiments have excluded purely mechanical effects.

In this project, you will build computational simulations of a set of hypothetical scenarios for the spread of the contraction response through the epithelial tissue, and compare contraction patterns with digitized dynamic data of the ablation experiments. You will make use of an existing modeling framework (VirtualLeaf) originally developed for plant development. Practical work will involve biophysical modeling, model development (C++ programming), image analysis. The work is carried out at Centrum Wiskunde & Informatica, within the Biomodelling and Biosystems Analysis group.

Further reading:

  • Joshi, S.D., Von Dassow, M., Davidson, L.A. (2010) Experimental control of excitable embryonic tissues: three stimuli induce rapid epithelial contraction. Experimental Cell Research 316, 103-114.
  • Merks, R.M.H., Van de Peer, Y., Inzé, D., and Beemster, G.T.S. (2007) Canalization without flux sensors: a traveling-wave hypothesis. Trends in Plant Science, 12(9), 384-390.
  • Balter, A., Merks, R.M.H., Poplawski, N.J., Swat, M., and Glazier, J.A. The Glazier–Graner–Hogeweg Model: Extensions, Future Directions, and Opportunities for Further Study. In: Katarzyna A. Rejniak, Alexander Anderson and Mark Chaplain (eds). Single Cell Based Models in Biology and Medicine. Birkhaüser-Verlag, Basel, Boston and Berlin. Series “Mathematics and Biosciences in Interaction.” Chapter (ii).3. pp. 137-150.

Further Information

Please contact Roeland Merks (CWI) or K. Anton Feenstra (VU) for more information.

Further Master projects at CWI

Masters thesis projects in the CWI Life Sciences group