Embryos, stem cells, and gastruloids: a spatialist interpretation of developmental biology

The challenge faced by developmental biologists is not an easy one: the embryo is a system under continuous change, where single cells navigate space, time, states and fates accordingly to mechanisms that are still poorly understood. Yet, these mechanisms must clearly work in that they consistently allow for the robust and reliable generation of functional adult living systems. How do we reconcile the quickly-changing reality of the developing embryo with the requirements of precise in vitro experimentation?

The short animation above introduces this topic and highlights the mutual relationship between in vivo and in vitro developmental models. By reinterpreting Italian photographer Ugo Mulas’ famous picture series, we here transpose Lucio Fontana’s spatialist interpretation of art to the developing embryo. Just as Fontana warped the dimensionality of the canvas by slashing it with a razor, developmental biologists interrupt the inexorable progression of developmental time by extracting cells from the inner cell mass. This population we call “embryonic stem cells”. From these the AMA lab has developed protocols that allow the generation of self-organising aggregatess: the gastruloids. Developed by learning from the embryo, gastruloids in turn allow to learn about the embryo, and represent in vitro systems where one can investigate in a controllable way the logic whereby cells interpret space and time.

 an animation by Stefano Vianello


  • Music: “Soft mischief” by Jay Man, ourmusicbox.com
  • Mouse early development: Sylvain Bessonard, Institut Pasteur, Paris, France
  • Picture series: Ugo Mulas “Lucio Fontana” (1964)