A protein with an amino acid sequence 81% identical and 93% similar to vertebrates? – Yet we don’t look like fruit flies!

The mounted slide

At the Kiehart Lab in Duke’s Department of Biology, Dr. Janice Crawford is researching the phenomena of morphogenesis – the biological process that causes cells or tissues to attain their characteristic shape, a process fundamental for development and wound healing.  Both genetic and biophysical approaches are used to investigate the production and regulation of tissue level forces in a simple model system, the Drosophila melanogaster, aka the fruit fly!

One of Dr. Crawford’s approaches involves temporarily depleting the developing fruit fly embryo of oxygen to reversibly halt and restart morphogenesis. The oxygen is replaced with either nitrogen or argon during image acquisition and processing. And this all happens in a chamber that allows for high resolution imaging while minimizing the dead volume of trapped gas.

The chamber however, was having difficulty regulating the focal plane of the embryo due to the changes in pressure between input tanks. Co-Lab masterminds, Chip Bobbert and Ross Winston were able to precisely redesign the chamber with a combination of standard milling of an aluminum slide and 3D printing to build the embryo mounting chamber.

The first generation of the chamber provided greater stability of the embryos and allowed for better image focus as the gases were exchanged while the second generation included a cover piece that reduced the amount of gas that could leak out of the system, furthermore tightening the timeframe of the effects of the oxygen depletion. How fancy!

“I learned that engineers are a great asset to biologists!”, says Dr. Crawford. With Co-Lab help in both the design and manufacturing process, she was able to be more efficient and productive in carrying out her experimental morphogenesis studies. The tweaked system parameters allowed the Kiehart Lab to expand the functionality of the chamber beyond their initial intentions.


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