Pressure in the Womb Influences Facial Development

A new study led by researchers from University College London (UCL) has discovered that physical cues in the womb, not just genetics, play a crucial role in the normal development of neural crest cells, the embryonic stem cells responsible for forming facial features. The findings, published in Nature Cell Biology, suggest that differences in hydrostatic pressure sensed by the embryo can impact the risk of facial malformations.

The researchers found that when neural crest cells are exposed to higher-than-usual levels of pressure, key cell signaling pathways are impeded, significantly increasing the risk of craniofacial malformations. This effect was observed in mouse and frog embryos, as well as in human embryoids, which are cell structures grown in the lab from human stem cells.

Potential Implications for Understanding Environmental Influences on Embryo Development

Lead author Professor Roberto Mayor from UCL Cell & Developmental Biology said, “Our findings suggest that facial malformations could be influenced not only by genetics but by physical cues in the womb such as pressure.” He added that while the study shows that embryos are sensitive to pressure, further research is needed to understand how changes inside the body and in environmental pressure might influence human embryo development.

The study’s findings could also have implications for stem cell research, as they indicate that the development and differentiation of stem cells are influenced by pressure. Understanding this connection could transform how scientists manipulate stem cells for various therapeutic purposes.

Building on Previous Research on Mechanical Cues in Facial Development

This research builds on previous work by Professor Mayor and colleagues at UCL, which found that cells in the developing embryo sense the stiffness of other cells around them, a key factor in their movement together to form the face and skull. The current study adds to the growing body of evidence that mechanical cues in the womb play a significant role in the development of facial features.

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