Australian researchers have used high-tech imaging equipment to capture the secret beginnings of the embryo.
The research shows how the first eight cells change shape in a process that determines whether an embryo will develop or not.
So far the research has been conducted on mice, but the scientists from Monash University are optimistic it could help improve in vitro fertilisation (IVF) for humans.
The pioneering imaging and video technique shows the cells becoming elongated and compacted against each other, before returning to their rounded shape and repeatedly dividing.
“Our findings reveal a completely unanticipated mechanism regulating the earliest stages of embryo development,” said lead researcher Dr Nicolas Plachta.
“Arm-like filopodia are hugging the cells, squeezing them into shape. We can apply this knowledge to human IVF treatments,” he said.
“Now that we know what controls early development, we are designing non-invasive imaging approaches to see if human embryos used in IVF form normal filopodia and undergo normal compaction.”
It had not previously been understood how the cells changed shape, said Dr Melanie White, co-lead author of a paper on the study published in the journal Nature Cell Biology.
“With IVF we are always looking for ways to pick the best embryos to implant. This could help with the screening process for the most viable embryos.”