Frog brains get busy long before they’re fully formed. Just a day after fertilization, embryonic brains begin sending signals to far-off places in the body, helping oversee the layout of complex patterns of muscles and nerve fibers. And when the brain is missing, bodily chaos ensues, researchers report online September 25 in Nature Communications.
The results, from brainless embryos and tadpoles, broaden scientists’ understanding of the types of signals involved in making sure bodies develop correctly, says developmental biologist Catherine McCusker of the University of Massachusetts Boston. Scientists are familiar with short-range signals among nearby cells that help pattern bodies. But because these newly described missives travel all the way from the brain to the far reaches of the body, they are “the first example of really long-range signals,” she says.
Celia Herrera-Rincon of Tufts University in Medford, Mass., and colleagues came up with a simple approach to tease out the brain’s influence on the growing body. Just one day after fertilization, the scientists lopped off the still-forming brains of African clawed frog embryos. These embryos survive to become tadpoles even without brains, a quirk of biology that allowed the researchers to see whether the brain is required for the body’s development.The answer was a definite — and surprising — yes, Herrera-Rincon says. Long before the brain is mature, it’s already organizing and guiding organ behavior, she says. Brainless tadpoles had bungled patterns of muscles. Normally, muscle fibers form a stacked chevron pattern. But in tadpoles lacking a brain, this pattern didn’t form correctly. “The borders between segments are all wonky,” says study coauthor Michael Levin, also of Tufts University. “They can’t keep a straight line.”
Nerve fibers that crisscross tadpoles’ bodies also grew in an abnormal pattern. Levin and colleagues noticed extra nerve fibers snaking across the brainless tadpoles in a chaotic pattern, “a nerve network that shouldn’t be there,” he says.
Muscle and nerve abnormalities are the most obvious differences. But brainless tadpoles probably have more subtle defects in other parts of their bodies, such as the heart. The search for those defects is the subject of ongoing experiments, Levin says.
In addition to keeping patterns on point, the young frog brain may protect its body from chemical assaults. A molecule that binds to certain proteins on cells in the body had no effect on normal embryos. But when given to brainless embryos, the same molecule caused their spinal cords and tails to grow crooked. These results suggest that early in development, brains keep embryos safe from agents that would otherwise cause harm.
“The brain is instructing cells that are really a long way away from it,” Levin says. While the precise identities of these long-range signals aren’t known, the researchers have some ideas. When brainless embryos were dosed with a drug that targets cells that typically respond to the chemical messenger acetylcholine, the muscle pattern improved. Similarly, the addition of a protein called HCN2 that can tweak the activity of cells also seemed to improve muscle development. More work is needed before scientists know whether these interventions are actually mimicking messaging from the early brain, and if so, how.
Frog development isn’t the same as mammalian development, but frog development “is pretty applicable to human biology,” McCusker says. In fundamental ways, humans and frogs are built from the same molecular toolbox, she says. So the results hint that a growing human brain might also interact similarly with a growing human body.