The spinal cord receives input from peripheral sensory neurons and controls motor output by regulating muscle innervating motor neurons. These functions are carried out by neural circuits comprising molecularly distinct neuronal subtypes generated in a characteristic spatiotemporal arrangement from progenitors in the embryonic neural tube. To gain insight into the diversity and complexity of cells in the developing human neural tube, we used single-cell mRNA sequencing to profile cervical and thoracic regions in four human embryos of Carnegie stages (CS) CS12, CS14, CS17 and CS19 from gestational weeks 4-7. Analysis of progenitor and neuronal populations from the neural tube and dorsal root ganglia identified dozens of distinct cell types and facilitated the reconstruction of the differentiation pathways of specific neuronal subtypes. Comparison with mouse revealed overall similarity of mammalian neural tube development while highlighting some human-specific features. These data provide a catalogue of gene expression and cell type identity in the human neural tube that will support future studies of sensory and motor control systems. The data can be explored at https://shiny.crick.ac.uk/scviewer/neuraltube/.
Time is inherent to biological processes. It determines the order of events and the speed at which they take place. However, we still need to refine approaches to measure the course of time in biological systems and understand what controls the pace of development. Here, we argue that the comparison of biological processes across species provides molecular insight into the timekeeping mechanisms in biology. We discuss recent findings and the open questions in the field and highlight the use of systems as tools to investigate cell-autonomous control as well as the coordination of temporal mechanisms within tissues. Further, we discuss the relevance of studying tempo for tissue transplantation, homeostasis and lifespan.
Although many molecular mechanisms controlling developmental processes are evolutionarily conserved, the speed at which the embryo develops can vary substantially between species. For example, the same genetic program, comprising sequential changes in transcriptional states, governs the differentiation of motor neurons in mouse and human, but the tempo at which it operates differs between species. Using in vitro directed differentiation of embryonic stem cells to motor neurons, we show that the program runs more than twice as fast in mouse as in human. This is not due to differences in signaling, nor the genomic sequence of genes or their regulatory elements. Instead, there is an approximately two-fold increase in protein stability and cell cycle duration in human cells compared with mouse cells. This can account for the slower pace of human development and suggests that differences in protein turnover play a role in interspecies differences in developmental tempo.
The Notch signalling pathway plays fundamental roles in diverse developmental processes in metazoans, where it is important in driving cell fate and directing differentiation of various cell types. However, we still have limited knowledge about the role of Notch in early preimplantation stages of mammalian development, or how it interacts with other signalling pathways active at these stages such as Hippo. By using genetic and pharmacological tools in vivo, together with image analysis of single embryos and pluripotent cell culture, we have found that Notch is active from the 4-cell stage. Transcriptomic analysis in single morula identified novel Notch targets, such as early naïve pluripotency markers or transcriptional repressors such as TLE4. Our results reveal a previously undescribed role for Notch in driving transitions during the gradual loss of potency that takes place in the early mouse embryo prior to the first lineage decisions.