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David Bricker
University Communications

Last modified: Wednesday, October 15, 2008

NIH to give IU $2.7 million to explain how embryos take their shape

Oct. 15, 2008

BLOOMINGTON, Ind. -- A Biocomplexity Institute team led by Indiana University Bloomington biophysicist James Glazier with collaborators András Czirók, Randy Heiland, Charles Little, Herbert Sauro and Santiago Schnell is set to receive $2.7 million from the National Institutes of Health to expand studies of early animal development, addressing age-old problems in developmental biology.

Somite failure mechanisms

Photo by: Glazier and Schnell groups

A model-borne illustration of early vertebrate development shows how specially segmented clusters of cells called "somites" can (A) incompletely separate, (B) improperly split, or (C) form correctly.

Print-Quality Photo

The new grant promises about $675,000 every year for four years. The project began in 2005 with a grant from the National Institute of General Medical Sciences, an NIH institute. Since its inception, Glazier's "Multiscale Studies of Segmentation in Vertebrate Embryos" has spawned 35 publications and a legion of supporters. The group has also developed computational modeling tools through complementary NIH awards.

"This grant will allow our multi-institution, multi-departmental team to explain one of the most important phases of embryonic development, the creation of the segmented structure which defines all vertebrate animals," said Glazier, professor of physics and director of the Biocomplexity Institute. "The composition of our team, which includes medical researchers, engineers, and scientists from four different universities, is the sort of collaboration the Biocomplexity Institute was founded to nurture, and is a significant advance for research on this campus."

Glazier and colleagues from IU, the University of Michigan, the University of Kansas and the University of Washington are in the midst of building simulations of early animal development -- specifically, how the cells in a chicken embryo form "somites," the segmented tissue that eventually becomes the bone, muscle and skin of the vertebrae, ribs and adjacent tissues. They will also conduct experiments on chick embryos to validate their simulation strategy.

"The work untangles the complex interactions occurring at multiple levels, following growth from a single cell and its subsequent daughter cells, all with an identical blueprint of genetic instructions," said IU Biocomplexity Institute staff scientist and collaborator Scott Gens. "We continue through the development, examining the means by which cells communicate amongst themselves to create patterns of differentiation, prompting the formation of different cell types and culminating in the formation of specific structures such as the spine."

In addition to its research tasks, Glazier's group will also continue to advise the NIH on what kinds of biological modeling research show the most promise, and how the NIH should target its funds in that regard.

The successful modeling of real-life development has medical implications. "Understanding this very complex developmental process could ultimately help us prevent segmentation-related birth defects in humans, and eventually help treat diseases like scoliosis," Glazier said.

An important aspect of the NIH-funded project is that it endeavors to understand the development of segmented tissue at many levels -- genetically, biochemically, cellularly, and up through layers of greater biological complexity, to tissues. Glazier and his collaborators are developing simulations, based on the latest models and facts accrued from their lab and computational research, that show how this tissue grows and differentiates.

"This type of research is critical in this field, as much of developmental biology research focuses on activity within individual cells, whereas this group is working from that point all the way up, providing a continuous model," said Sally Todd, assistant director of the Biocomplexity Institute. "The medical applications for this work are almost endless, as understanding development at this level for cancer, vascular problems, birth defects, etc., directly impacts prevention and treatment. The group is also providing a model for the interaction of experimentalists and computational researchers that is vital in advancing a much-needed, interdisciplinary approach to push biomedical understanding and technology forward at minimal cost and maximum effectiveness."

The project has several specialized research centers at its disposal, including the Biocomplexity Institute at IU Bloomington, the Scientific Data Analysis Laboratory at IUPUI, the Department of Bioengineering at the University of Washington, and the Experimental Imaging Lab at the University of Kansas Medical Center.

The NIH grant greatly expands funding for biocomplexity research at IU. To learn more about the Biocomplexity Institute at IU Bloomington, please visit

To speak with Glazier, please contact David Bricker, University Communications, at 812-856-9035 or