Biomechanics of development and organism-environment interactions

Michelangelo von Dassow
Presented in the Embryo Physics Course, February 29, 2012


In nature, developing organisms encounter numerous types of variation that influence the mechanics of the organism. Studying how embryos respond to this variation illuminates how biomechanics contributes to phenotypic variation. I will focus on two examples from my own work: frog (Xenopus laevis) gastrulation and bryozoan (Membranipora sp.) colony patterning. In the first case we have found that morphogenesis can be surprisingly insensitive to variation in the mechanical properties of the tissue. However, a simplified mechanical model might explain temperature-dependent variation in morphogenesis. Our lab has not found evidence that mechanotransductory signaling coordinates morphogenesis during frog gastrulation. However, such feedback processes are prominent in adult organisms. Due to its relatively simple geometry and direct interaction with the environment, the chimney system in colonies of the bryozoan Membranipora may provide a useful model system for studying how such feedback processes influence organism-environment interactions. Fluid flow influences chimney formation in ways that could explain patterns of phenotypic plasticity. Understanding such interactions between developmental biomechanics and the environment will be valuable for deciphering the causes of developmental defects and the evolution of developmental mechanisms.




I have a long standing interest in the interactions among biomechanics, development, and the environment. I completed my B.S. in biology at the University of Washington, where I was introduced to the mechanics of development while working on the unicellular alga, Acetabularia acetabulum with Drs. Dina Mandoli and Garry Odell. I completed my Ph.D. in Integrative Biology in 2005, working with Dr. Mimi Koehl at U.C. Berkeley. My dissertation research focused on how fluid flow influences the structure of a biological fluid transport system in a colonial animal, the bryozoan Membranipora membranacea. From 2006 to 2011 I worked as a post-doc with Dr. Lance Davidson (University of Pittsburgh, Dept. of Bioengineering) on the mechanics of gastrulation in Xenopus laevis. Presently I am an instructor at the Duke University Marine Lab. While I continue with theoretical work on Xenopus with Dr. Davidson, I am also beginning new experimental projects on environment-biophysics interactions during blastocoel formation and gastrulation in echinoderms.

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