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How to Make Eyeball Stew - Editor’s choice in developmental biology

For nearly two decades now, developmental biologist Yoshiki Sasai from Japan’s RIKEN Center for Developmental Biology has slaved away to perfect a recipe: the culture medium that could induce mouse embryonic stem cells to form organs with no additional ingredients. Disheartened by his incomplete success in generating brain tissue from stem cells, Sasai began a side project to grow early-stage mouse eyes, because they are “relatively simpler in structure than cortex” tissue, he said.

In his free time, Sasai fussed over his medium, fine-tuning the concentrations of ingredients—adding a gel containing laminin proteins essential for constructing basement membranes, decreasing growth factor levels. With his latest recipe complete, Sasai mixed in mouse embryonic stem cells—and then sat back to see what would happen, if anything.

Like most embryonic cells, aggregates of stem cells first formed hollowed spheres. But after 7 days Sasai and his colleagues noticed some “funny structures” sprouting off the outer fringes of the spheres and glowing green with a marker indicating retinal differentiation, Sasai recalls. Within the next few days each of those small buds folded in upon itself to form a goblet shape with two cell layers: an outer retinal pigment epithelium, which provides nutrients to the visual cells, and an inner layer of retinal neural cells. These structures were optic cups, the precursor to the fully differentiated retina—and they appeared to be forming “hands-off” within Sasai’s culture mixture.

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