How Fate Mapping Is Used to Track Cell Development

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  • 0:20 Walter Vogt - Early…
  • 1:30 Advances in Fate Mapping
  • 3:32 Fate Mapping in Mammals
  • 5:05 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Joshua Anderson
Over the years, scientists have developed several methods to label and track groups of cells as they develop. These types of experiments are called fate mapping studies. In this lesson, you'll learn the basics of fate mapping and see how technology has allowed scientists to improve fate mapping techniques.

Early Fate Mapping Experiments

Walter Vogt used fate mapping to study cell development in amphibian embryos.
Tadpole Fate Map

When it comes right down to it, developmental biology, at its most basic level, is the study of what different cells become as an organism matures. So wouldn't it be great if we had a way to track different cells in a developing embryo? Well, back in 1929, an embryologist named Walter Vogt developed a method to label a small number of cells with a dye that would be passed on to all of those cells' direct descendants. He was able to label groups of cells at the gastrula stage of development in amphibian embryos and then follow the dye through development to see what those cells became.

For example, in one experiment he labeled a group of cells in a particular region of the dorsal part of a gastrula-stage embryo. Then, when the embryo became further developed, he saw that the dye was located exclusively in the embryo's brain and the anterior part of the notochord. By doing several more experiments where he labeled different groups of cells in multiple embryos, Vogt was able to compile all the data he collected on which cells became various embryonic structures. With this data, he was able to construct a fate map, which is a diagram that shows the developmental fate of various cells from an early-stage embryo.

Improving Fate Mapping Techniques

Since Vogt's early experiments, there have been many technological advances that have changed the ways that scientists can do fate mapping studies. Advances in microscope and imaging technologies and new dyes, including the use of fluorescent dyes, have resulted in more accurate detection and mapping. In addition, advances in injection techniques now allow for more precise labeling of single cells at many different stages of development. These techniques have been successfully applied to many different organisms, most of which develop in an egg outside their mother. Organisms that develop in external eggs, especially those with transparent eggs, are the easiest to study in fate mapping experiments. This is why the fate maps of organisms like frogs, zebrafish and the very small free-living roundworm C. elegans are so well known.

Example of a fate map
Fate Map Example

C. elegans is actually a very special case. You see, C. elegans is so small (about 1 mm long), and its body plan is so precise and uniform, that scientists have been able to determine that an adult has exactly 959 somatic cells, or non-reproductive cells, in its body. Because of this and the fact that C. elegans has been studied so extensively, a complete fate map for the organism has been made and the origin of every single one of its adult cells is known. Fate maps for frogs and zebrafish are also quite detailed, but these organisms are too large to keep track of every single cell. Chicken embryos are more difficult to work with because the eggs are not transparent and the shell is hard. However, scientists have still found ways to access the embryo inside the egg without killing it, which has resulted in a detailed chicken fate map as well.

Fate Mapping in Mammals

Mammalian fate maps eluded embryologists for many years. As you might have guessed, this was because mammalian development within the mother made access to living embryos over their entire development impossible. Eventually, methods were developed to grow early mammalian embryos in culture, which is the process by which living cells are kept alive and grown in an incubator outside of the body. Fate maps were made for the early stages of mammalian development and were found to correspond well with the established chicken fate map. However, later stages of mammalian development where greater differences occur between species still presented a problem.

Scientists have created a complete fate map for the 1-mm C. elegans.
C elegans

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