Credit: Jessica Ryvlin, Stephanie Lindsey, and Jonathan Butcher, Cornell University, Ithaca, NY
What might appear in this picture to be an exotic, green glow worm served up on a collard leaf actually comes from something we all know well: an egg. It’s a 3-day-old chicken embryo that’s been carefully removed from its shell, placed in a special nutrient-rich bath to keep it alive, and then photographed through a customized stereo microscope. In the middle of the image, just above the blood vessels branching upward, you can see the outline of a transparent, developing eye. Directly to the left is the embryonic heart, which at this early stage is just a looped tube not yet with valves or pumping chambers.
Developing chicks are one of the most user-friendly models for studying normal and abnormal heart development. Human and chick hearts have a lot in common structurally, with four chambers and four valves pumping two circulations of blood in parallel. Unlike mammalian embryos tucked away in the womb, researchers have free range to study the chick heart in or out of the egg as it develops from a simple looped tube to a four-chambered organ.
Jonathan Butcher and his NIH-supported research group at Cornell University, Ithaca, NY, snapped this photo, a winner in the Federation of American Societies for Experimental Biology’s 2015 BioArt competition, to monitor differences in blood flow through the developing chick heart. You can get a sense of these differences by the varying intensities of green fluorescence in the blood vessels. The Butcher lab is interested in understanding how the force of the blood flow triggers the switching on and off of genes responsible for making functional heart valves. Although the four valves aren’t yet visible in this image, they will soon elongate into flap-like structures that open and close to begin regulating the normal flow of blood through the heart.
Caption: Heart microchamber generated from human iPS cells; cardiomyocytes (red), myofibroblasts (green), cell nuclei (blue) Credit: Zhen Ma, University of California, Berkeley
The adult human heart is about the size of a large fist, divided into four chambers that beat in precise harmony about 100,000 times a day to circulate blood throughout the body. That’s a very dynamic system, and also a very challenging one to study in real-time in the lab. Understanding how the heart forms within developing human embryos is another formidable challenge. So, you can see why researchers are excited by the creation of tiny, 3D heart chambers with the ability to exist (see image above) and even beat (see video below) in a lab dish, or as scientists say “in vitro.”
Credit: Zhen Ma et al., Nature Communications
To achieve this feat, an NIH-funded team from University of California, Berkeley, and Gladstone Institute of Cardiovascular Disease, San Francisco turned to human induced pluripotent stem (iPS) cell technology. The resulting heart chambers may be miniscule—measuring no more than a couple of hair-widths across—but they hold huge potential for everything from improving understanding of cardiac development to speeding drug toxicity screening.