Study maps genes linked to development

Scientists hope to gain greater understanding of disease and birth defects by mapping gene expression during development.

The expression of a protein needed to ensure the healthy formation of digits and other bones of the limbs.

The research will log thousands of 3D images relating to the first 10 day of a chick embryo’s development.

The “chick atlas” is being coordinated by The Roslin Institute at the University.

This is being done in collaboration with the MRC Human Genetics Unit (Edinburgh), University College London, University of Bath and Trinity College Dublin.


Watch a video showing the expression of genes in a chick embryo during limb formation.

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Gene expression

The chick atlas has the benefit of looking at how genes relate to development in both time and space; letting us know when and where genes make an impact.

Professor Dave BurtThe Roslin Institute

Images will show where genes key to our biological make-up are switched and when they are turned on and off to ensure healthy development.

The project will help researchers understand why problems occur in the development of limbs and of the nervous system, which can cause conditions such as spina bifida.

In the long term it could also have implications for the treatment of diseases such as cancer as it will provide insight into the role genes play when cells divide and proliferate.

The £2.6 million initiative is funded by the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council through its new LOLA (“longer and larger”) scheme.

Building on previous research

The chick atlas will exploit the information and resources recently made available from the sequencing of the mouse and chicken genomes.

In particular, it will build on the pioneering Edinburgh Mouse Atlas at the MRC Human Genetics Unit in Edinburgh.

Initially the chick atlas will look at mapping 1,000 of around 18,000 chick genes predicted from the chicken genome sequence.

By cross referencing similarities with the mouse atlas, scientists can identify the most relevant genes in human.

Images will be stored in an online database, which can be accessed and added to by scientists from across the world.

As an online database or encyclopaedia it is also available to the public and educators, to be used as a tool to teach development.

The mouse atlas team will contribute their expertise in atlas databases to deliver this important resource. The ability to capture and compare data between species will provide critical clues to how embryogenesis is controlled by gene activity.

Professor Richard BaldockMedical Research Council Human Genetics Unit

Photo and video credit: Helen Downie, University of Bath.