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Morphogenesis (from the Greek morphê shape and genesis creation, literally "the generation of form") is the biological process that causes a cell, tissue or organism to develop its shape. It is one of three fundamental aspects of developmental biology along with the control of tissue growth and patterning of cellular differentiation.


The process controls the organized spatial distribution of cells during the embryonic development of an organism. Morphogenesis can take place also in a mature organism, such as in the normal maintenance of tissue by stem cells or in regeneration of tissues after damage. Cancer is an example of highly abnormal and pathological tissue morphogenesis. Morphogenesis also describes the development of unicellular life forms that do not have an embryonic stage in their life cycle. Morphogenesis is essential for the evolution of new forms.

Morphogenesis is a mechanical process involving forces that generate mechanical stress, strain, and movement of cells, [1] and can be induced by genetic programs according to the spatial patterning of cells within tissues.


Some of the earliest ideas and mathematical descriptions on how physical processes and constraints affect biological growth, and hence natural patterns such as the spirals of phyllotaxis, were written by D'Arcy Wentworth Thompson in his 1917 book On Growth and Form [2] [3] [note 1] and Alan Turing in his The Chemical Basis of Morphogenesis (1952). [6] Where Thompson explained animal body shapes as being created by varying rates of growth in different directions, for instance to create the spiral shell of a snail, Turing correctly predicted a mechanism of morphogenesis, the diffusion of two different chemical signals, one activating and one deactivating growth, to set up patterns of development, decades before the formation of such patterns was observed. [7] The fuller understanding of the mechanisms involved in actual organisms required the discovery of the structure of DNA in 1953, and the development of molecular biology and biochemistry.

Genetic and molecular basis

Morphogenesis is controlled by a "toolkit" of genes which switch development on and off at precise times and places. Here, gap genes in the fruit fly are switched on by genes such as bicoid, setting up stripes which create the body's segmental form. Gap gene expression.svg
Morphogenesis is controlled by a "toolkit" of genes which switch development on and off at precise times and places. Here, gap genes in the fruit fly are switched on by genes such as bicoid , setting up stripes which create the body's segmental form.

Several types of molecules are important in morphogenesis. Morphogens are soluble molecules that can diffuse and carry signals that control cell differentiation via concentration gradients. Morphogens typically act through binding to specific protein receptors. An important class of molecules involved in morphogenesis are transcription factor proteins that determine the fate of cells by interacting with DNA. These can be coded for by master regulatory genes, and either activate or deactivate the transcription of other genes; in turn, these secondary gene products can regulate the expression of still other genes in a regulatory cascade of gene regulatory networks. At the end of this cascade are classes of molecules that control cellular behaviors such as cell migration, or, more generally, their properties, such as cell adhesion or cell contractility. For example, during gastrulation, clumps of stem cells switch off their cell-to-cell adhesion, become migratory, and take up new positions within an embryo where they again activate specific cell adhesion proteins and form new tissues and organs. Developmental signaling pathways implicated in morphogenesis include Wnt, Hedgehog, and ephrins. [8]

Cellular basis

Cell sorting out with cultured P19 embryonal carcinoma cells. Live cells were stained with DiI (red) or DiO (green). The red cells were genetically altered and express higher levels of E-cadherin than the green cells. The mixed culture forms large multi-cellular aggregates. P19 cell sorting out.png
Cell sorting out with cultured P19 embryonal carcinoma cells. Live cells were stained with DiI (red) or DiO (green). The red cells were genetically altered and express higher levels of E-cadherin than the green cells. The mixed culture forms large multi-cellular aggregates.

At a tissue level, ignoring the means of control, morphogenesis arises because of cellular proliferation and motility. [9] Morphogenesis also involves changes in the cellular structure [10] or how cells interact in tissues. These changes can result in tissue elongation, thinning, folding, invasion or separation of one tissue into distinct layers. The latter case is often referred as cell sorting. Cell "sorting out" consists of cells moving so as to sort into clusters that maximize contact between cells of the same type. The ability of cells to do this has been proposed to arise from differential cell adhesion by Malcolm Steinberg through his differential adhesion hypothesis. Tissue separation can also occur via more dramatic cellular differentiation events during which epithelial cells become mesenchymal (see Epithelial–mesenchymal transition). Mesenchymal cells typically leave the epithelial tissue as a consequence of changes in cell adhesive and contractile properties. Following epithelial-mesenchymal transition, cells can migrate away from an epithelium and then associate with other similar cells in a new location. [11] In plants, cellular morphogenesis is tightly linked to the chemical composition and the mechanical properties of the cell wall. [12] [13]

Cell-to-cell adhesion

During embryonic development, cells are restricted to different layers due to differential affinities. One of the ways this can occur is when cells share the same cell-to-cell adhesion molecules. For instance, homotypic cell adhesion can maintain boundaries between groups of cells that have different adhesion molecules. Furthermore, cells can sort based upon differences in adhesion between the cells, so even two populations of cells with different levels of the same adhesion molecule can sort out. In cell culture cells that have the strongest adhesion move to the center of a mixed aggregates of cells. Moreover, cell-cell adhesion is often modulated by cell contractility, which can exert forces on the cell-cell contacts so that two cell populations with equal levels of the same adhesion molecule can sort out. The molecules responsible for adhesion are called cell adhesion molecules (CAMs). Several types of cell adhesion molecules are known and one major class of these molecules are cadherins. There are dozens of different cadherins that are expressed on different cell types. Cadherins bind to other cadherins in a like-to-like manner: E-cadherin (found on many epithelial cells) binds preferentially to other E-cadherin molecules. Mesenchymal cells usually express other cadherin types such as N-cadherin. [14] [15]

Extracellular matrix

The extracellular matrix (ECM) is involved in keeping tissues separated, providing structural support or providing a structure for cells to migrate on. Collagen, laminin, and fibronectin are major ECM molecules that are secreted and assembled into sheets, fibers, and gels. Multisubunit transmembrane receptors called integrins are used to bind to the ECM. Integrins bind extracellularly to fibronectin, laminin, or other ECM components, and intracellularly to microfilament-binding proteins α-actinin and talin to link the cytoskeleton with the outside. Integrins also serve as receptors to trigger signal transduction cascades when binding to the ECM. A well-studied example of morphogenesis that involves ECM is mammary gland ductal branching. [16] [17]

Cell contractility

Tissues can change their shape and separate into distinct layers via cell contractility. Just as in muscle cells, myosin can contract different parts of the cytoplasm to change its shape or structure. Myosin-driven contractility in embryonic tissue morphogenesis is seen during the separation of germ layers in the model organisms Caenorhabditis elegans , Drosophila and zebrafish. There are often periodic pulses of contraction in embryonic morphogenesis. A model called the cell state splitter involves alternating cell contraction and expansion, initiated by a bistable organelle at the apical end of each cell. The organelle consists of microtubules and microfilaments in mechanical opposition. It responds to local mechanical perturbations caused by morphogenetic movements. These then trigger traveling embryonic differentiation waves of contraction or expansion over presumptive tissues that determine cell type and is followed by cell differentiation. The cell state splitter was first proposed to explain neural plate morphogenesis during gastrulation of the axolotl [18] and the model was later generalized to all of morphogenesis. [19] [20]

Branching morphogenesis

In the development of the lung a bronchus branches into bronchioles forming the respiratory tree. [21] The branching is a result of the tip of each bronchiolar tube bifurcating, and the process of branching morphogenesis forms the bronchi, bronchioles, and ultimately the alveoli. [22]

Branching morphogenesis is also evident in the ductal formation of the mammary gland. [23] [24] Primitive duct formation begins in development, but the branching formation of the duct system begins later in response to estrogen during puberty and is further refined in line with mammary gland development. [24] [25] [26]

Cancer morphogenesis

Cancer can result from disruption of normal morphogenesis, including both tumor formation and tumor metastasis. [27] Mitochondrial dysfunction can result in increased cancer risk due to disturbed morphogen signaling. [27]

Virus morphogenesis

During assembly of the bacteriophage (phage) T4 virion, the morphogenetic proteins encoded by the phage genes interact with each other in a characteristic sequence. Maintaining an appropriate balance in the amounts of each of these proteins produced during viral infection appears to be critical for normal phage T4 morphogenesis. [28] Phage T4 encoded proteins that determine virion structure include major structural components, minor structural components and non-structural proteins that catalyze specific steps in the morphogenesis sequence. [29] Phage T4 morphogenesis is divided into three independent pathways: the head, the tail and the long tail fibres as detailed by Yap and Rossman. [30]

See also


  1. Thompson's book is often cited. An abridged version, comprising 349 pages, remains in print and readily obtainable. [4] An unabridged version, comprising 1116 pages, has also been published. [5]

Related Research Articles

Fibroblast Animal connective tissue cell that synthesizes the extracellular matrix, collagen, animal stroma and is involved in wound healing

A fibroblast is a type of biological cell that synthesizes the extracellular matrix and collagen, produces the structural framework (stroma) for animal tissues, and plays a critical role in wound healing. Fibroblasts are the most common cells of connective tissue in animals.

Cellular differentiation Process in which relatively unspecialized cells acquire specialized features

Cellular differentiation is the process in which a cell changes from one cell type to another. Usually, the cell changes to a more specialized type. Differentiation occurs numerous times during the development of a multicellular organism as it changes from a simple zygote to a complex system of tissues and cell types. Differentiation continues in adulthood as adult stem cells divide and create fully differentiated daughter cells during tissue repair and during normal cell turnover. Some differentiation occurs in response to antigen exposure. Differentiation dramatically changes a cell's size, shape, membrane potential, metabolic activity, and responsiveness to signals. These changes are largely due to highly controlled modifications in gene expression and are the study of epigenetics. With a few exceptions, cellular differentiation almost never involves a change in the DNA sequence itself. Although metabolic composition does get altered quite dramatically where stem cells are characterized by abundant metabolites with highly unsaturated structures whose levels decrease upon differentiation. Thus, different cells can have very different physical characteristics despite having the same genome.

Extracellular matrix Network of proteins and molecules outside cells that provides structural support for cells

In biology, the extracellular matrix (ECM) is a three-dimensional network consisting of extracellular macromolecules and minerals, such as collagen, enzymes, glycoproteins and hydroxyapatite that provide structural and biochemical support to surrounding cells. Because multicellularity evolved independently in different multicellular lineages, the composition of ECM varies between multicellular structures; however, cell adhesion, cell-to-cell communication and differentiation are common functions of the ECM.

Mammary gland Exocrine gland in humans and other mammals

A mammary gland is an exocrine gland in humans and other mammals that produces milk to feed young offspring. Mammals get their name from the Latin word mamma, "breast". The mammary glands are arranged in organs such as the breasts in primates, the udder in ruminants, and the dugs of other animals. Lactorrhea, the occasional production of milk by the glands, can occur in any mammal, but in most mammals, lactation, the production of enough milk for nursing, occurs only in phenotypic females who have gestated in recent months or years. It is directed by hormonal guidance from sex steroids. In a few mammalian species, male lactation can occur. With humans, male lactation can occur only under specific circumstances.

Cell adhesion Process of cell attachment

Cell adhesion is the process by which cells interact and attach to neighbouring cells through specialised molecules of the cell surface. This process can occur either through direct contact between cell surfaces such as cell junctions or indirect interaction, where cells attach to surrounding extracellular matrix, a gel-like structure containing molecules released by cells into spaces between them. Cells adhesion occurs from the interactions between cell-adhesion molecules (CAMs), transmembrane proteins located on the cell surface. Cell adhesion links cells in different ways and can be involved in signal transduction for cells to detect and respond to changes in the surroundings. Other cellular processes regulated by cell adhesion include cell migration and tissue development in multicellular organisms. Alterations in cell adhesion can disrupt important cellular processes and lead to a variety of diseases, including cancer and arthritis. Cell adhesion is also essential for infectious organisms, such as bacteria or viruses, to cause diseases.


Cadherins (named for "calcium-dependent adhesion") are a type of cell adhesion molecule (CAM) that are important in the formation of adherens junctions to allow cells to adhere to each other. Cadherins are a class of type-1 transmembrane proteins, and they are dependent on calcium (Ca2+) ions to function, hence their name. Cell-cell adhesion is mediated by extracellular cadherin domains, whereas the intracellular cytoplasmic tail associates with numerous adaptors and signaling proteins, collectively referred as the cadherin adhesome.

Cell adhesion molecules (CAMs) are a subset of cell surface proteins that are involved in the binding of cells with other cells or with the extracellular matrix (ECM), in a process called cell adhesion. In essence, CAMs help cells stick to each other and to their surroundings. CAMs are crucial components in maintaining tissue structure and function. In fully developed animals, these molecules play an integral role in generating force and movement and consequently ensuring that organs are able to execute their functions normally. In addition to serving as "molecular glue", CAMs play important roles in the cellular mechanisms of growth, contact inhibition, and apoptosis. Aberrant expression of CAMs may result in a wide range of pathologies, ranging from frostbite to cancer.

Cell junctions are a class of cellular structures consisting of multiprotein complexes that provide contact or adhesion between neighboring cells or between a cell and the extracellular matrix in animals. They also maintain the paracellular barrier of epithelia and control paracellular transport. Cell junctions are especially abundant in epithelial tissues. Combined with cell adhesion molecules and extracellular matrix, cell junctions help hold animal cells together.

The epithelial–mesenchymal transition (EMT) is a process by which epithelial cells lose their cell polarity and cell–cell adhesion, and gain migratory and invasive properties to become mesenchymal stem cells; these are multipotent stromal cells that can differentiate into a variety of cell types. EMT is essential for numerous developmental processes including mesoderm formation and neural tube formation. EMT has also been shown to occur in wound healing, in organ fibrosis and in the initiation of metastasis in cancer progression.

Neural fold

The neural fold is a structure that arises during neurulation in the embryonic development of both birds and mammals among other organisms. This structure is associated with primary neurulation, meaning that it forms by the coming together of tissue layers, rather than a clustering, and subsequent hollowing out, of individual cells. In humans, the neural folds are responsible for the formation of the anterior end of the neural tube. The neural folds are derived from the neural plate, a preliminary structure consisting of elongated ectoderm cells. The folds give rise to neural crest cells, as well as bringing about the formation of the neural tube.

Mesenchyme Type of connective tissue found mostly during the embryonic development of bilateral triploblast animals

Mesenchyme is a type of loosely organised animal embryonic connective tissue of undifferentiated cells that gives rise to blood and lymph vessels, bone, and muscle.

Epithelial cell adhesion molecule

Epithelial cell adhesion molecule (EpCAM) is a transmembrane glycoprotein mediating Ca2+-independent homotypic cell–cell adhesion in epithelia. EpCAM is also involved in cell signaling, migration, proliferation, and differentiation. Additionally, EpCAM has oncogenic potential via its capacity to upregulate c-myc, e-fabp, and cyclins A & E. Since EpCAM is expressed exclusively in epithelia and epithelial-derived neoplasms, EpCAM can be used as diagnostic marker for various cancers. It appears to play a role in tumorigenesis and metastasis of carcinomas, so it can also act as a potential prognostic marker and as a potential target for immunotherapeutic strategies.

TBX3 Protein-coding gene in the species Homo sapiens

T-box transcription factor TBX3 is a protein that in humans is encoded by the TBX3 gene.

Stress fiber contractile actin bundles found in non-muscle cells

Stress fibers are contractile actin bundles found in non-muscle cells. They are composed of actin (microfilaments) and non-muscle myosin II (NMMII), and also contain various crosslinking proteins, such as α-actinin, to form a highly regulated actomyosin structure within non-muscle cells. Stress fibers have been shown to play an important role in cellular contractility, providing force for a number of functions such as cell adhesion, migration and morphogenesis.

CDH1 (gene) Human protein-coding gene

Cadherin-1 also known as CAM 120/80 or epithelial cadherin (E-cadherin) or uvomorulin is a protein that in humans is encoded by the CDH1 gene. Mutations are correlated with gastric, breast, colorectal, thyroid, and ovarian cancers. CDH1 has also been designated as CD324. It is a tumor suppressor gene.

A mesenchymal–epithelial transition (MET) is a reversible biological process that involves the transition from motile, multipolar or spindle-shaped mesenchymal cells to planar arrays of polarized cells called epithelia. MET is the reverse process of epithelial–mesenchymal transition (EMT) and it has been shown to occur in normal development, induced pluripotent stem cell reprogramming, cancer metastasis and wound healing.

Role of cell adhesions in neural development

Cellular adhesions can be defined as proteins or protein aggregates that form mechanical and chemical linkages between the intracellular and extracellular space. Adhesions serve several critical processes including cell migration, signal transduction, tissue development and repair. Due to this functionality, adhesions and adhesion molecules have been a topic of study within the scientific community. Specifically, it has been found that adhesions are involved in tissue development, plasticity, and memory formation within the central nervous system (CNS), and may prove vital in the generation of CNS-specific therapeutics.

Neural crest cells are multipotent cells required for the development of cells, tissues and organ systems. A subpopulation of neural crest cells are the cardiac neural crest complex. This complex refers to the cells found amongst the midotic placode and somite 3 destined to undergo epithelial-mesenchymal transformation and migration to the heart via pharyngeal arches 3, 4 and 6.

Madin-Darby Canine Kidney cells

Madin-Darby Canine Kidney (MDCK) cells are a model mammalian cell line used in biomedical research. MDCK cells are used for a wide variety of cell biology studies including cell polarity, cell-cell adhesions, collective cell motility, as well as responses to growth factors. It is one of few cell culture models that is suited for 3D cell culture and multicellular rearrangements known as branching morphogenesis.

Thomas Lecuit, born 4 October 1971 in Saumur, is a French biologist specializing in the emergence of forms or morphogenesis. He is a professor at the Collège de France, holding the Dynamics of Life Chair. He leads a research team at the Institut de Biologie du Développement de Marseille (IBDM), and the Turing Centre for Living Systems, an interdisciplinary centre dedicated to the study of living organisms.


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Further reading