Global Speaker Series: Alfonso Martinez-Arias, PhD, University of Cambridge
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Organized by Medicine by Design, the Institute of Biomaterials & Biomedical Engineering and the Ontario Institute for Regenerative Medicine
12:30 to 13:30
Bahen Centre for Information Technology, Room 1170

Head shot of Alfonso Martinez-AriasThe Medicine by Design Global Speaker Series invites established and emerging international leaders in regenerative medicine to engage with our extraordinary community of researchers and clinicians.

Medicine by Design, in partnership with the Institute of Biomaterials & Biomedical Engineering’s Distinguished Seminar Series and the Ontario Institute for Regenerative Medicine, is pleased to welcome Alfonso Martinez-Arias,  PhD, Professor of Genetics, University of Cambridge. The title of his talk is The self engineering of the mammalian embryo: a synthetic approach.

For those unable to attend in person, the event will be livestreamed.

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Talk Abstract

The recurrent emergence of tissues and organs during development suggest the existence of programs that are triggered at fertilization and unfold in space and time during embryogenesis. The genetic analysis of this process has provided support for this notion and led to the identification of the pieces that run the program: genes and proteins. However, the building of tissues and organs is more a matter of cells than of genes (1) and one can construe this as an engineering process in which the genes are instructions to build cells which are the actual decoders and, at the same time, builders of the system. The mammalian embryo is a particular extreme example of this, as it starts with a small number of cells, about 400, and develops shape and pattern as it increases its cellular mass.

Over the last few years we have been using embryonic stem (ES) cells to address these questions. ES cells are are clonal derivatives from the epiblast of preimplantation mammalian embryos which, after prolonged culture, can be differentiated into all cell types of an organism. We have found that, under defined culture conditions, small and precise numbers of ES cells will form aggregates that develop by mirroring events in the embryo (2-4). These aggregates, which we call ‘gastruloids,’ undergo symmetry breaking, gastrulation-like processes and germ layer organization and differentiation followed by axial organization and elongation. Analysis of these processes suggest that gastruloids are following a program that encodes time and space autonomously. We are using gastruloids to explore how a mammalian embryo engineers itself from the cellular perspective, and I shall be discussing our findings and how can we harness them to understand and engineer the emergence of tissues and organs in the embryo.


  1. Martinez Arias, A. (2016) Of codes and machines in Biology. Blog post https://amapress.gen.cam.ac.uk/?p=1800
  2. van den Brink, S., Baillie-Johnson, P., Balayo, T., Hadjantonakis, AK., Nowotschin, S., Turner, DA. And & Martinez Arias, A. (2014) Symmetry breaking, germ layer specification and axial organisation in aggregates of mouse ES cells. Development 141, 4231-4242.
  3. Turner, DT., Hayward, P., Baillie Johnson, P., Broome, R., Rue, P., Faunes, F. and Martinez Arias, A. (2014) Wnt/ß-catenin and FGF signalling direct the specification and maintenance of a neuromesodermal axial progenitor in ensembles of mouse ES cells. Development 141, 4242-4253.
  4. Turner, D., Girgin, M., Alonso-Crisostomo, L., Baillie-Johnson, P., Glodowski, C. R., Hayward, P., Collignon, J., Gustavsen, C., Serup, P., Steventon, B., et al. (2017). Anteroposterior polarity and elongation in the absence of extraembryonic tissues and spatially localised signalling in Gastruloids, mammalian embryonic organoids. Development In press.


Dr. Alfonso Martinez-Arias obtained his PhD from the University of Chicago, and was a post-doctoral fellow with Peter Lawrence at the Laboratory of Molecular Biology in Cambridge University.

In 1983 Dr. Martinez-Arias obtained his PhD from the University of Chicago and then moved to the UK where in 1987 he was awarded a Wellcome Trust Senior Fellowship at Cambridge, where he became a professor of developmental mechanics in 2002. He is an elected member of EMBO and in 2012 was awarded the Waddington medal for his contributions to British developmental biology.

Dr. Martinez-Arias’ laboratory uses methods at the interface of physics and biology to understand the principles that govern embryonic development.  He has over 140 publications which have been cited over 14,000 times. He is also a co-author of the influential textbook Principles of Development.

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