As embryos develop and organs form, cells are constantly pushing and pulling on each other. The mechanical forces exerted in this tug of war might be as important in controlling embryonic development as chemicals and genes. But their influence has been hard to gauge, largely because it was impossible to measure cell-generated forces in living embryos. Now, scientists have devised a solution: they film cell-sized oil microdroplets, which remain separate from cells and glow when illuminated by lasers, under the microscope. Pictured is a droplet (blue) being squeezed by cells in the developing jaw (red) of a mouse. By measuring the deformation of these droplets with computerised image analysis tools, scientists can calculate the force exerted by neighbouring cells. The new method should help researchers to figure out the role of mechanical forces in the normal shaping of tissues and organs, and in instances where it goes wrong.
Written by Daniel Cossins
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