Developmental Biology enquires about the fundamental processes that underpin the fertilisation of an egg cell and its step-by-step transformation into the fascinating complexity of a whole organism (Box 1).
Box 1: Some definitions of Developmental Biology
- Developmental Biology is the study of the processes by which organs grow and develop. Modern developmental biology studies the genetic control of cell growth, differentiation and morphogenesis, which is the process that gives rise to tissues, organs and anatomy, but also regeneration and ageing (after L. Wolpert)
- Developmental biology is the study of the process by which animals and plants grow and develop, and is synonymous with ontogeny (Wikipedia).
- Developmental Biology is the causal analysis of the cellular mechanisms that drive processes of growth, pattern formation and morphogenesis (A. Martínez Arias)
At first sight, Developmental Biology could be viewed as an academic discipline driven by mere curiosity and, hence, to be of little relevance to the big challenges of population health or sustainability. On the contrary, Developmental Biology – along with Physiology – is arguably the most important biological discipline we have. Here we will explain and substantiate this statement.
(1) Developmental defects in humans are very abundant (Box 2). By studying the underlying mechanisms and causes, Developmental Biology addresses the key challenge of population health. Sustaining food resources is another major global challenge, and Developmental Biology can provide key strategies to improving crop and plant cultivation (see Mathan et al., 2016, Development 143, 3283ff. — LINK; further arguments will follow – please help us by contributing your ideas!).
Box 2: Statements from the literature illustrating the abundance of developmental defects in humans
- The frequency at which all classes of developmental defects occur is thought to be … exceeding half of initial pregnancies.
- Major developmental defects … occur in approximately 3% of live births.
- In 1995, major developmental defects accounted for approximately 70% of neonatal deaths (occurring before 1 month of age) and 22% of the 6,500 infant deaths (before 15 months of age) in the US.
- Approximately 30% of admissions to pediatric hospitals are for health problems associated with such defects.
source: Scientific Frontiers in Developmental Toxicology and Risk Assessment, 2000, National Academic Press, Washington DC, pp.354; edited by the National Research Council (LINK)
(2) Developmental Biology (like Physiology) is asking fundamental questions at the level of whole organisms, organs or tissues (Box 3). Notably, this is the level at which diseases become manifest. For this reason, Developmental Biology has been, and continues to be, most effective in delivering explanations for diseases or medically relevant processes including infertility, neonatal death, birth defects (e.g. deformation, body growth abnormalities, developmental brain disorders, blindness, deafness), cancer, wound healing, tissue regeneration (regenerative medicine including stem cell biology), etc.
Box 3: Fundamental questions asked by developmental biologists – and how they translate into biomedical application
- What processes lead to fertilisation and the initiation of development? How can we overcome infertility and childlessness?
- How do single fertilised egg cells, or later on groups of progenitor cells, generate the enormous cellular diversity of an organism and its organs and tissues? How do stem/progenitor cells generate whole tissues or organs – for example in regeneration or tissue engineering, and how does wound healing work?
- How do cells, which originate from common ancestors and contain the same genetic information, adopt different fates? How do cells change their identities and behaviours – for example in cancer?
- How do tissues and their cells know when to stop growing? How can cells evade growth control – for example in tumour growth?
- How is the formation of different cells/tissues coordinated in space and time? What are the patho-mechanisms underlying birth disorders?
(3) By asking fundamental questions at the level of organisms, organs and tissues, Developmental Biology-related research is a generator of new ideas and concepts (Box 4). These concepts essentially underpin the modern biomedical sciences and include cell signalling, tissue and body patterning, growth regulation, cell migration or morphogenesis; they form the basis for contemporary research into stem cells, cancer, wound healing, regeneration or ageing.
(4) Developmental Biology is exciting and powerful because it reaches across the different levels of biological complexity and explanation; phenomena at the level of organisms, organs or tissues can ultimately be understood only by tracing them back to events at the level of genes and cells. Consequently, Developmental Biology embraces disciplines such as genetics, molecular biology, (stem) cell biology, biochemistry, biophysics as well as evolutionary biology.
(5) Developmental Biology capitalises on the principle of evolutionary conservation of genes, mechanisms and concepts by making informed and strategic uses of suitable model organisms, down to experimentally and genetically amenable invertebrates. The use of invertebrate model organisms provides an efficient and powerful strategy to generate new ideas, concepts and understanding which can then be tested (and often validated) in higher organisms, eventually leading to medical applications in humans (LINK). This discovery pipeline has been a central driver for the enormous contributions that Developmental Biology has made and continues to make to the biomedical sciences.
Box 4: A metaphor explaining how Developmental Biology works
Understanding a combustion engine requires investigating its single parts, such as the sparking plug, cylinder or crank shaft. However, for a developmental biologist it is not sufficient to find out how each of these parts works, but this new knowledge needs to be linked back into the mechanistic framework that constitutes the entire engine and explains its function. Linking detailed findings back to the bigger question of understanding the engine is an important validation and filter step that reveals whether the detailed findings are actually relevant and make deeper sense. Only through such systematic and holistic “reverse enginieering” can the necessary systemic and conceptual understanding be achieved which is required to diagnose and eventually repair a faulty engine.
By executing all research work with the ultimate aim of understanding the bigger question (e.g. how to make an organ, appendix or entire body), Developmental Biology has become such an important contributor of concepts and understanding in the field of the biomedical and medical sciences.
As an interesting side note: already in the late 18th century, Johann Wolfgang von Goethe understood that it is not enough to “have the pieces in your hand” but that they need to be connected and “woven” together to “recognise and describe the living”.
These are only some thoughts (still incomplete and in need of further optimisation) about the importance of Developmental Biology as a discipline. If we want to improve the standing of our discipline, we MUST embrace these ideas with passion, help to complement and further improve them and, most importantly, use them whenever possible and adequate to advocate our discipline with self-confidence and enthusiasm. To do this with impact, we need to acknowledge that communicating science is a difficult task which requires belief, love for our subject, stamina, and efficient strategies that enable us to engage with a wide spectrum of target audiences. Such target audiences include the general public and schools, fellow scientists and clinicians, as well as politicians and other decision makers. But we need to be realistic and accept that most members of these target audiences will, by default, show little interest to engage with us. Therefore, intelligent and strategic long-term approaches – ideally shared within networks of scientists – likely provide the most promising path of engagement – as is explained in greater detail in the editorial of a special issue on science communication (published in Sem Cell Dev Biol; Box 5). For those who take an interest, this special issue provides many ideas of how long-term strategies for the communication of biomedical research can be implemented successfully – and can then even become rewarding for our own science and career. Please, also have a look at our link list of public engagement outreach resources which will provide you with further ideas and useful support materials.
Science communication in the field of fundamental biomedical research
(scheduled as the October edition; free access for one year)
Sam Illingworth and Andreas Prokop
The aim of this special issue is to provide concise and accessible advice on how to engage effectively, as well as share valuable practice gained from successful long-term science communication initiatives – thus providing ideas to all those who want to engage with the public, policy makers or other scientists, or are engaging already. This issue is primarily written for scientists working in the field of the biomedical sciences (and beyond), but will hopefully also be seen as a helpful resource for academic & professional science communicators. To appeal to both groups and hopefully stimulate impact-enhancing interdisciplinary collaborations, the issue is an unprecedented experiment written at the interface of both disciplines. The enormous opportunities of long-term approaches and the formation of interdisciplinary science communication networks are explained in great detail in our editorial.
Science communication in the field of fundamental biomedical research
Sam Illingworth, Andreas Prokop
[PDF] [see also]
Cover art by Matt Girling. See figure legend in the editorial.
Delivering effective science communication: advice from a professional science communicator
The nuts and bolts of evaluating science outreach
EuroStemCell: A European infrastructure for communication and engagement with stem cell research
Jan Barfoot, Kate Doherty, C. Clare Blackburn
The Manchester Fly Facility: Implementing an objective-driven long-term science communication initiative
Sanjai Patel, Andreas Prokop
Building dialogues between clinical and biomedical research through cross-species collaborations
Hsiao-Tuan Chao, Lucy Liu, Hugo J. Bellen
DrosAfrica: Establishing a Drosophila community in Africa
Maria Dolores Martín-Bermudo, Luka Gebel, Isabel M. Palacios, I. M.
[PDF] [SITE] [YouTube]
Engaging with primary schools: supporting the delivery of the new curriculum in evolution and inheritance
Paula Kover, Emily Hogge
The droso4schools project: long-term scientist-teacher collaborations to promote science communication and education in schools
Sanjai Patel, Sophie DeMaine, Joshua Heafield, Lynne Bianchi, Andreas Prokop
Science Communication at Scientific Societies
The Node and beyond – using social media in cell and developmental biology
Catarina Vicente, Aidan Maartens, Katherine Brown
 In the sense used here, Physiology comprises disciplines like immunology or functional studies in the field of neurobiology
 Arguments and examples given so far concern studies of animal development, and those for plant development will follow soon