Better understanding these processes could help scientists uncover and reverse engineer the fundamental mechanisms by which a single-celled egg constructs a whole organism, the authors said. This could have profound implications in biotechnology, particularly for efforts to build artificial tissues and organs for transplantation or for testing new drug candidates.

“The issue with tissue engineering right now is that we just don’t know what the underlying science is,” Megason said. “If you want to build a little bridge over a stream, maybe you could do that without understanding physics. But if you wanted to build a big suspension bridge, you need to know a lot about the underlying physics. Our goal is to figure out what those rules are for the embryo.”

Additional authors on the study include Mateusz Sikora, Peng Xia, Tugba Colak-Champollion and Holger Knaut.

This work was supported by the National Institutes of Health (grants R01GM107733, R01NS102322), a K99 fellowship from the Eunice Kennedy Shriver National Institute of Child Health and Human Development (1K99HD092623), the Damon Runyon Cancer Foundation, the Company of Biologists, the Burroughs Wellcome Fund and the European Research Council.