The Grant Museum has a number of embryological wax models on display (Images 1, 2, 4, and 5 amongst others not shown here). These models, while often ignored by visitors, are actually quite remarkable as they showcase the brilliance and mystery of embryological development. They were created to help elucidate essential questions like: how do humans and other animals form? How are a bunch of seemingly insignificant cells, with no shape other than a ball, able to grow so much and in such detail to form intricate patterns like our eyes? How can one cell transform itself into such different tissues, from hard rock bone to the jelly like liver? In order to understand how a human body is formed it is vital to study the very first stages of its creation, i.e. when we are just a bunch of cells.
The very first cells that are formed after fertilization are called stem cells and they start with an unlimited capacity to form any type of cells. With time, they start to differentiate and mature into specialized cells with a limited lifetime. In this process, little by little they lose their unlimited capacity until they can only form cells that are similar in lineage. In this manner, totipotent stem cells can form any body part including extraembryonic tissue like the placenta. On the next level, pluripotent stem cells (embryonic stem cells for example) are capable of forming any body part but have lost the capacity to form extraembryonic tissue. And finally, multipotent stem cells, much more restricted, can only form cells from a specific tissue or organ.
This may appear as a straightforward process, but the development of an animal is a deeply specific, delicate, and sophisticated interplay of signals and coordinated transitions. Think of it as an orchestrated dance of on and off switches leading to specialisation and exponential growth. In fact, it is so complex that we still don’t understand it entirely.
Although not all human, the wax models display the first stages of development of vertebrates and closely related animals. First, one cell divides symmetrically into two, then four, then eight and so on (Image 1 and front models of Image 2). Afterwards, cells start organizing themselves answering to chemical and physical signals and different patterns start to appear (Image 2 models in the back). Eventually, an axis emerges on which cells migrate along which will give rise to the head on one side and the body and limbs on the other (Image 4).
Slowly but surely, we all go from looking like little worms to fully grown animals (Image 3). It is important to note that in this initial period most embryos have a very similar appearance, at least between vertebrates. These similarities tell us that a lot of the genes that govern this initial growth haven’t changed between species over time. It’s like nature is saying, “well, if it ain’t broke don’t fix it” and so these mechanisms have been conserved in different animals.
These early stages are crucial moments because if one little element of the spatial/temporal organization is out of place, improper organization can lead to lifelong malformations, diseases, or even the termination of the embryo. Hence the importance of understanding how this process works. We know that even in adult life, there are still stem cells proliferating and forming new tissue to a certain degree. Some organs, like the skin, have a lot of stem cells to replace old cells when they die or get injured. But other organs like the brain, have a very limited capacity to grow new cells—one of the reasons why a brain is much more difficult to fix.
So can we get back all the limitless capacity there once was in the developing embryo? Even though the genetic and molecular mechanisms governing all these changes are still somewhat elusive, researchers are using stem cells and powerful genetic tools to answer this question and decipher every single step of how a human is formed in the womb. Moreover, if we can understand the process, then we can recreate and modify it in the lab, and this is exactly what the field of stem cells and regenerative medicine is trying to do. Imagine having the capacity to grow new organs to be used for transplantation or drug testing. How about growing a brand new functioning leg or arm for amputees? Or studying the mechanisms of diseases like Parkinson’s, leukaemia, diabetes, amongst others. The benefits of harnessing the regenerative potential of cells are far-reaching.
The exciting field of stem cells and regenerative medicine has come a long way, more than a century has passed from the first time the term stem cells was used in 1906 up until the creation of genetically modified human embryos in 2017. The embryological wax models represent initial efforts of identifying how changes give rise to specific structures and ultimately how an animal comes into existence. Furthermore, the future still holds exciting breakthroughs, there is still a lot to understand about human development and the wax models are a fantastic resource to portray the morphogenetic changes we all once went through.
Gilbert SF. Developmental Biology. 6th edition. Sunderland (MA): Sinauer Associates; 2000. Comparative Embryology. Available from: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK9974/