Emergent morphogenesis: elastic mechanics of a self-deforming tissue

J Biomech. 2010 Jan 5;43(1):63-70. doi: 10.1016/j.jbiomech.2009.09.010. Epub 2009 Oct 8.


Multicellular organisms are generated by coordinated cell movements during morphogenesis. Convergent extension is a key tissue movement that organizes mesoderm, ectoderm, and endoderm in vertebrate embryos. The goals of researchers studying convergent extension, and morphogenesis in general, include understanding the molecular pathways that control cell identity, establish fields of cell types, and regulate cell behaviors. Cell identity, the size and boundaries of tissues, and the behaviors exhibited by those cells shape the developing embryo; however, there is a fundamental gap between understanding the molecular pathways that control processes within single cells and understanding how cells work together to assemble multicellular structures. Theoretical and experimental biomechanics of embryonic tissues are increasingly being used to bridge that gap. The efforts to map molecular pathways and the mechanical processes underlying morphogenesis are crucial to understanding: (1) the source of birth defects, (2) the formation of tumors and progression of cancer, and (3) basic principles of tissue engineering. In this paper, we first review the process of tissue convergent extension of the vertebrate axis and then review models used to study the self-organizing movements from a mechanical perspective. We conclude by presenting a relatively simple "wedge-model" that exhibits key emergent properties of convergent extension such as the coupling between tissue stiffness, cell intercalation forces, and tissue elongation forces.

Publication types

  • Research Support, N.I.H., Extramural
  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't
  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Animals
  • Biomechanical Phenomena
  • Body Patterning / physiology
  • Cell Differentiation
  • Ectoderm / growth & development
  • Embryo, Nonmammalian / metabolism
  • Embryonic Development
  • Germ Layers / growth & development*
  • Mesoderm / growth & development
  • Mesoderm / physiology
  • Morphogenesis / physiology*
  • Xenopus laevis / embryology