The heart is the first organ system to form in the embryo. Over the course of development, cardiomyocytes with differing morphogenetic, molecular, and physiological characteristics are specified and differentiate and integrate with one another to assemble a coordinated electromechanical pumping system that can function independently of any external stimulus. As congenital malformation of the heart presents the leading class of birth defects seen in humans, the molecular genetics of heart development have garnered much attention over the last half century. However, understanding how genetic perturbations manifest at the level of the individual cell function remains challenging to investigate. Some of the barriers that have limited our capacity to construct high-resolution, comprehensive models of cardiac physiological maturation are rapidly being removed by advancements in the reagents and instrumentation available for high-speed live imaging. In this review, we briefly introduce the history of imaging approaches for assessing cardiac development, describe some of the reagents and tools required to perform live imaging in the developing heart, and discuss how the combination of modern imaging modalities and physiological probes can be used to scale from subcellular to whole-organ analysis. Through these types of imaging approaches, critical insights into the processes of cardiac physiological development can be directly examined in real-time. Moving forward, the synthesis of modern molecular biology and imaging approaches will open novel avenues to investigate the mechanisms of cardiomyocyte maturation, providing insight into the etiology of congenital heart defects, as well as serving to direct approaches for designing stem-cell or regenerative medicine protocols for clinical application.
Keywords: cardiac conduction system; cardiac development; optical mapping; physiological imaging.