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Title: Utilising embryonic and extra-embryonic stem cells to model early mammalian embryogenesis in vitro
Author: Harrison, Sarah Ellys
ISNI:       0000 0004 7229 2575
Awarding Body: University of Cambridge
Current Institution: University of Cambridge
Date of Award: 2018
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Successful mammalian development to term requires that embryonic and extra-embryonic tissues communicate and grow in coordination, to form the body. After implanting into the uterus, the mouse embryo is comprised of three cell lineages: first, the embryonic epiblast (EPI) that forms the embryo proper, second, the extra-embryonic ectoderm (ExE) which contributes to the foetal portion of the placenta, and third, the visceral endoderm (VE) that contributes to the yolk sac. These three tissues form a characteristic ‘egg-cylinder’ structure, which allows signals to be exchanged between them and sets the stage for body axis establishment and subsequent tissue patterning. The mechanisms underlying this process are difficult to study in vivo because a different genetically manipulated mouse line must be generated to investigate each factor involved. This difficulty has prompted efforts to model mammalian embryogenesis in vitro, using cell lines, which are more amenable to genetic manipulation. The pluripotent state of the EPI can be captured in vitro as mammalian embryonic stem cells (ESCs). Although mouse ESCs have been shown to contribute to all adult tissues in chimeric embryos, they cannot undertake embryogenesis when allowed to differentiate in culture. Previous studies have shown that ESCs formed into three-dimensional (3D) aggregates, called embryoid bodies, can become patterned and express genes associated with early tissue differentiation. However, embryoid bodies cannot recapitulate embryonic architecture and therefore may not accurately reflect what happens in the embryo. In this study, a new technique was developed to model early mouse development which is more faithful to the embryo. ESCs were co-cultured with stem cells derived from the ExE, termed trophoblast stem cells (TSCs), embedded within extracellular matrix (ECM). These culture conditions lead to the self-assembly of embryo-like structures with similar architecture to the mouse egg cylinder. They were comprised of an embryonic compartment derived from ESCs abutting an extra-embryonic compartment derived from TSCs, and hence were named ‘ETS-embryos’. These structures developed a continuous cavity at their centre, which formed via a similar sequence of events to those that lead to pro-amniotic cavity formation in the mouse embryo, and required active Nodal/Activin signalling. After cavitation, ‘ETS-embryos’ developed regionalised mesodermal tissue and primordial germ cell-like cells originating at the boundary between embryonic and extra-embryonic compartments. Inhibitor studies revealed that this occurred in response to endogenous Wnt and BMP signalling, pathways which also govern these tissue specification events in the early mouse embryo. To demonstrate that ‘ETS-embryos’ were comparable to mouse embryos at the global transcriptional level, RNA-sequencing was then performed on different tissue regions of ‘ETS-embryos’ and the resulting transcriptomes were compared to datasets from mouse embryos. These data showed that ‘ETS-embryos’ were highly similar to mouse embryos at post-implantation stages in their overall gene expression patterns. Taken together, these results indicate that ‘ETS-embryos’ are an accurate in vitro model of mammalian embryogenesis, which can be used to complement studies undertaken in vivo to investigate early development.
Supervisor: Zernicka-Goetz, Magdalena Sponsor: BBSRC
Qualification Name: Thesis (Ph.D.) Qualification Level: Doctoral
Keywords: Stem cells ; embryonic development ; mouse embryo ; mammalian development ; developmental biology