Morphogenesis in Animals and Plants: Search for Principles

Coordinators: Thomas Lecuit, Ottoline Leyser, Stanislav Shvartsman, and Sebastian Streichan

During development, animals and plants execute a remarkable process called morphogenesis, transforming a single cell into a complex organism. In a tightly coordinated manner, cells grow, divide and differentiate to form a properly functional and shaped body. In this way cells become fated to execute specific tasks, and the resulting cell types are distributed at required abundance across tissues. This exquisite control of fate, form and function is coordinated by genetically encoded program of development. It sets up the body axes, triggers cascades of biochemical processes to instruct cell fates, and directs physical processes giving rise to intricate tissue re-configurations. Both at the cell-biological as well as genetic levels, plants and animals exhibit significant differences. This suggests that plants and animals identified different solutions to the question of how a developmental program reliably generates multicellular form and function.

The plant and animal lineages diverged before the evolution of multicellularity, and thus each kingdom represents an independent solution to the same basic problems in morphogenesis, built from the same unicellular toolkit. A rapidly advancing arsenal of new experimental methods now allows researchers to observe and intervene in the formation of entire organs at high spatiotemporal resolution. Results from this work, combined with dynamical systems modeling provide unprecedented access to these design principles. Preliminary results indicate similar physical mechanisms, despite diverged genetic control. This program will explore the principles of morphogenesis in animals and plants, bringing together theorists and experimentalists, and explore phenomenological and quantitative modeling strategies. Tightly integrating theory with experiment will help uncover common physical principles underpinning development in animals and plants, and may reveal deep insights about the nature of the genetic strategies used to ‘tame’ physics.