Self-Organization of Stem Cell Colonies and of Early Mammalian Embryos: Recent Experiments Shed New Light on the Role of Autonomy vs. External Instructions in Basic Body Plan Development

Cells. 2016 Oct 25;5(4):39. doi: 10.3390/cells5040039.


"Organoids", i.e., complex structures that can develop when pluripotent or multipotent stem cells are maintained in three-dimensional cultures, have become a new area of interest in stem cell research. Hopes have grown that when focussing experimentally on the mechanisms behind this type of in vitro morphogenesis, research aiming at tissue and organ replacements can be boosted. Processes leading to the formation of organoids in vitro are now often addressed as self-organization, a term referring to the formation of complex tissue architecture in groups of cells without depending on specific instruction provided by other cells or tissues. The present article focuses on recent reports using the term self-organization in the context of studies on embryogenesis, specifically addressing pattern formation processes in human blastocysts attaching in vitro, or in colonies of pluripotent stem cells ("gastruloids"). These morphogenetic processes are of particular interest because, during development in vivo, they lead to basic body plan formation and individuation. Since improved methodologies like those employed by the cited authors became available, early embryonic pattern formation/self-organization appears to evolve now as a research topic of its own. This review discusses concepts concerning the involved mechanisms, focussing on autonomy of basic body plan development vs. dependence on external signals, as possibly provided by implantation in the uterus, and it addresses biological differences between an early mammalian embryo, e.g., a morula, and a cluster of pluripotent stem cells. It is concluded that, apart from being of considerable biological interest, the described type of research needs to be contemplated carefully with regard to ethical implications when performed with human cells.

Keywords: axis formation; basic body plan; development; ethics; gastrulation; implantation; in vitro models; morphogenesis; organoids; pattern formation; primitive streak; stem cells.

Publication types

  • Review