Morphogenetic engineering on the go

From 27 to 29 November, EMBL and IRB Barcelona, with the support of the BBVA Foundation, brought together international experts in the fields of developmental biology and tissue engineering to share knowledge and discuss morphogenetic engineering. James Sharpe (Head of EMBL Barcelona) and Marco Milán (ICREA Research Professor and Group Leader of IRB Barcelona’s Development and Growth Control Laboratory) talk about the importance of this Barcelona BioMed Conference and the latest breakthroughs in the field.


  • What do you understand by “Morphogenetic engineering”?

James Sharpe: We chose to call this meeting "Morphogenetic engineering” to reflect the growing and exciting fusion of various ideas and communities. Developmental biologists want to understand how animals build tissues and organs through a process called morphogenesis. Tissue engineers, on the other hand, want to learn how to build or fix damaged tissues in the adult organism. For me, morphogenetic engineering is about embryos, tissue morphogenesis, genetic and mechanical control, organoids, regeneration and, of course, engineering.


  • What are the main biological questions researchers in this area are asking and  what the state-of-the-art technologies are they using to answer them?

James Sharpe: The overarching query is how to build tissues and organs. But within it there are other more specific questions, such as: how do cells know which decisions to make? How do they use molecular and mechanical cues to know where they are, or which direction they should move? How do gene circuits confer cells with correct decision-making behaviour? And how do large numbers of cells, each with only limited local information, collaborate to create something much larger and more complex than themselves? Many state-of-the-art technologies are required to tease out the relevant information from our model systems: especially 3D and 4D imaging, multi-cellular transcriptomics, and computer modelling.


  • What were the main outcomes of this conference?

Marco Milán: First, this Barcelona BioMed Conference has certainly contributed to reinforcing the idea that the principles of developmental biology are becoming a framework for integrating various disciplines across biology. Second, it has witnessed the emergence of a new biological discipline, morphogenetic engineering, which incorporates concepts from developmental biology and classical engineering and seeks to explore the parallels between naturally evolved and artificially engineered systems. Perhaps the most important lesson I take away from this meeting is the realization that, by incorporating concepts and techniques from classical engineering, developmental biology, will further increase its impact on other disciplines across biology, including regenerative medicine and tissue engineering.


  • What makes Barcelona BioMed Conferences special?

Marco Milán: Barcelona BioMed Conferences are mainly about increasing cohesion within a particular scientific field - by sharing unpublished data and new ideas and by promoting open discussion and scientific collaborations. They are also about communicating major scientific breakthroughs and their impact beyond scientific field, especially to young generations of scientists and the public in general. The Barcelona BioMed Conferences have a special signature. Organizedby extraordinary event staff, they take place in an historical building with impressive meeting rooms, in a Mediterranean city with great weather. They gather a small number of attendees in a relaxed three-day agenda. The series has helped to reinforce existing open and friendly relationships between the leading scientists in this emerging field.


Learn more: Embryonic development inspires regenerative medicine