An engineer’s guide to the embryo

Xenopus tadpoles are excellent test subjects because their transparent bodies allow for unobstructed views into their internal anatomy. Credit: MechMorpho Lab/Lance Davidson

In roughly 48 hours, the single cell of the fertilized frog egg will undergo dramatic change to develop vital body parts like muscles, a skeleton, eyes, a heart, and a tadpole tail. Scientists have been studying this process to better understand human development, birth defects, and cancer and to advance technologies like organoid generation and cell replacement therapy. Scientists can disrupt embryo development, pause it, and accelerate it; however, they can’t exactly explain how development works. Supported by the National Institutes of Health (NIH), bioengineers at the University of Pittsburgh are taking a crack at understanding what is going on inside the egg.


The NIH Department of Health and Human Services awarded Lance Davidson, professor of bioengineering at Pitt’s Swanson School of Engineering, $1,327,207 for his study “Biomechanics of Morphogenesis.” Dr. Davidson, who directs the MechMorpho Lab at the University of Pittsburgh, aims to take a structural engineer’s approach to the biomechanics of developing embryos.

The Pitt researchers are reverse-engineering the mechanical processes that shape the basic body plan and organ development in embryos using tests, techniques, and tools more likely to be found in a mechanical engineering lab than a molecular genetics lab.

“If you saw a bridge for the first time, how would you figure out it worked?” Dr. Davidson asks. “A geneticist might blast it into pieces and analyze how each piece works, but an engineer would look at the ensemble, taking measurements of force and movement. They would put more weight on it and see…

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