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Chick embryo
Image of a chick embryo (grey) showing the activity of a gene involved in digit formation (magenta). Credit: H Downie. Click here to see a movie of images from the Chick Atlas.

Press Release - 14 November 2008

Chicks to give scientists clearer picture of fetal development

Scientists hope to gain a greater understanding of disease and birth defects with a new imaging database that will map the expression of genes that control development.

Researchers from the University of Bath are collaborating with colleagues at The Roslin Institute at the University of Edinburgh, the MRC Human Genetics Unit (Edinburgh), University College London, and Trinity College Dublin, on a project that will log thousands of three dimensional images of chicks taken during the first 10 days of their development.

The so-called 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 (

Images from the Chick Atlas will not only show where the genes key to our biological make-up are switched on, but also when they are turned on and off to ensure healthy development.

The £2.6 million initiative, which is funded by the Biotechnology and Biological Science Research Council (BBSRC) through its new LOLA (“longer and larger”) scheme, will help researchers understand why problems occur in the development of limbs and 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 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 will also be available to the public and educators, as a tool to teach development.

Professor Cheryll Tickle and her team from the University's Department of Biology & Biochemistry are using a technique called in situ-hybridisation to monitor where specific genes are active during different stages of development of the chick embryo, and then visualising the embryo and these patterns of gene activity in 3D. Professor Tickle first began this research whilst at the University of Dundee.

She explained: "In this project we're particularly interested in the genes that are involved in the formation of limbs. Most of these genes are also present in humans.

"We will be comparing the data from the Chick Atlas with that of the Mouse Atlas to see the relationship between the sets of genes we're interested in. From this, we can identify which genes are also likely to be important in human development."

In the initial stages the Chick Atlas will look at mapping 1,000 of around 18,000 chick genes predicted from the chicken genome sequence.

Professor Dave Burt, of the Roslin Institute, University of Edinburgh, said: “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.”

“These early stages of a chick embryo are essential in the development of the nervous system, heart and limbs, and by understanding what happens we can also understand why things may go wrong.”

Professor Richard Baldock, of the MRC’s Human Genetics Unit in Edinburgh, said: “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. As a physicist and computer scientist this is an exciting time to be in biomedical research.”

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