New Quantitative Approaches to Morphogenesis

Coordinators: Thomas Lecuit, Ewa Paluch, Joel Rothman, Boris Shraiman

Animal and plant genomes encode elaborate developmental programs, which are executed in the process of morphogenesis. Molecular-genetic study of development has uncovered many, and in some cases most, of the genes that define the adult body plan and control the development. Yet the dynamical process - the "executable program" of development- that links genes and molecules on subcellular scale to the resulting macroscopic shapes and structures remains far from understood. How does the spatio-temporally regulated cell proliferation and differentiation give rise to limbs and organs with correct size, form and function? Understanding this problem requires identifying the intercellular signals and mechanical interactions that propagate information throughout the tissue and define collective behavior of cells. It is on this mesoscopic scale of intercellular interaction, that the bridge between molecules and the large-scale morphology is to be found.

The macroscopic description of morphogenesis - as was fully appreciated by D’Arcy Thompson in his seminal book "On Growth and Form", nearly a century ago - presents what is, in essence, a physical science problem and demands a quantitative and mathematical approach. Tremendous recent progress in fluorescent microscopy and live imaging of development, together with tools enabling genetic and mechanical perturbation of tissues, have now opened the floodgates of quantitative data, enabling the pursuit of D’Arcy Thompson’s agenda of understanding how "growth" defines "form" in a way that one could only dream of before.

Our program will bring together physical scientists and biologists, experimentalists and theorists with the goal of critically reviewing the existing knowledge, articulating new approaches and forging new collaborations. It will cover a broad range of model organisms, both animals and plants, and examine universal signaling mechanisms and intercellular interactions, from morphogens to mechanics.

A unique aspect of the program will be the inclusion of an experimental component, provided by the concurrently-run Advanced Summer Research Course on Live Imaging and Quantitative Analysis of Development. This course will include state-of-the-art experiments and take place in the laboratory next door to KITP. It will be fully integrated with the KITP program and provide program participants with an opportunity to engage, along with course students and instructors, with the design and analysis of quantitative experiments.