Uncovering the mechanistic basis of biomechanical input controlling skeletal development: exploring the interplay with Wnt signalling at the joint
Professor Paula Murphy, Trinity College Dublin, the University of Dublin, Ireland
Embryo movement is essential to the formation of a functional skeleton. Using mouse and chick models, the group has previously shown that mechanical forces influence gene regulation and tissue patterning, particularly at developing joints. However, there remains a lack of knowledge of the molecular mechanisms that underpin the influence of mechanical signals.
Wnt signalling is required during skeletal development and is altered under reduced mechanical stimulation. To explore Wnt signalling as a mediator of mechanical input, the expression of Wnt ligand and Fzd receptor genes in the developing skeletal rudiments was profiled. Canonical Wnt activity restricted to the developing joint is reduced under immobilization while over-expression of activated b-catenin or the Wnt antagonist Sfrp3 following electroporation of chick embryo limbs, supports the proposed role for Wnt signalling in mechanoresponsive joint patterning. Two key findings advance our understanding of the interplay between Wnt signalling and mechanical stimuli: firstly, the loss of canonical Wnt activity at the joint shows reciprocal, co-ordinated regulation of Wnt and BMP pathways under mechanical influence. Secondly, this occurs simultaneously with increased expression of several Wnt pathway component genes in a territory peripheral to the joint, identifying the importance of mechanical stimulation on a population of potential joint progenitor cells.
New players and concepts in muscoskeletal biomechanics
Professor Elazar Zelzer, Weizmann Institute of Science, Israel
Muscle spindles and Golgi tendon organs (GTOs), proprioceptive mechanoreceptors located inside striated muscles and in myotendinous junctions, respectively, are components of the stretch reflex circuitry that control muscle activity. Using genetic mouse models, the group demonstrates the involvement of proprioception in regulating spine alignment and spontaneous realignment of fractured bones, dubbed natural reduction. Failure of the mechanism that maintains posture may result in spinal deformity as in adolescent idiopathic scoliosis. The group shows that null mutants for Runx3 transcription factor, which lack connectivity between proprioceptors and spinal cord, developed peripubertal scoliosis not preceded by vertebral dysplasia or muscle asymmetry. Deletion of Runx3 in the peripheral nervous system or specifically in peripheral sensory neurons, or of enhancer elements driving Runx3 expression in proprioceptive neurons, induced a similar phenotype. Egr3 knockout mice, lacking spindles but not GTOs, displayed a less severe phenotype, suggesting that both receptor types are required for this regulatory mechanism.
Fracture repair involves restoration of bone morphology. Comparison among mice of different ages revealed, surprisingly, that three-month-old mice exhibited more rapid and effective natural reduction than newborns. Fractured bones of Runx3-null mutants failed to realign properly. Blocking Runx3 expression in peripheral nervous system, but not in limb mesenchyme, recapitulated the null phenotype, as did inactivation of muscles flanking the fracture site. Egr3 knockout mice displayed a less severe phenotype, suggesting that both receptor types, as well as muscle contraction, are required for this regulatory mechanism. Overall, these findings uncover physiological roles for proprioception in non-autonomous regulation of skeletal integrity and repair.
The role of fetal movements in shaping the developing human skeleton
Dr Niamh Nowlan, Imperial College London, UK
Mechanical stimulation generated by fetal kicking and movements is known to be important for prenatal musculoskeletal development, and there are a number of human conditions that emphasise the link between abnormal fetal movements and delayed or impaired skeletal development. The most common of these is developmental dysplasia of the hip (DDH), a relatively common joint shape abnormality (clinical incidence 1.3 in 1000), the risk of which is strongly associated with restricted fetal movement, such as fetal breech position. The group is using computational modelling approaches (finite element analysis and musculoskeletal modelling), combined with human fetal imaging data to try to understand how the biomechanical stimulation (stresses and strains) caused by fetal movements evolve in the prenatal developing hip joint. Furthermore, the group models a range of intra-uterine conditions and situations that increase the risk of DDH, such as fetal breech position and oligohydramnios (reduced amniotic fluid), in order to be able to understand how a range of factors affecting movement may impact on the developing hip joint.
Mechanobiology of embryonic tendon development and regeneration
Professor Catherine K Kuo, University of Rochester, USA
Tendons transmit muscle-generated forces to bones to enable skeletal movements and stabilize joint structures. Proper development and maintenance of these extracellular matrix-rich tissues is critical to their demanding physical roles throughout the body. Abnormal tendon formation during embryogenesis is associated with frequently occurring musculoskeletal deformities such as congenital tallipes equino varus. Furthermore, tendons injured postnatally fail to recapitulate development during healing, and instead heal with aberrant matrix composition and organization, resulting in reduced functionality and greater susceptibility to re-injury. The group is interested in understanding how tendon mechanical properties elaborate during normal embryonic development to inform the prevention of tendon-related musculoskeletal birth defects and the enhancement of regenerative postnatal healing. This talk will focus specifically on the novel approaches the group has utilized to characterize the mechanical properties of tendons during embryonic development, and crosslinking mechanisms that have been identified to be critical to this process. Furthermore, the talk will discuss the development of engineered hydrogel systems that mimic the embryonic tendon mechanical microenvironment, enabling study of how dynamic changes in tissue stiffness continuously influence cell behaviours (differentiation, extracellular matrix synthesis, etc.) during development. Finally, the talk will discuss the role of physical movements (eg, kicking) in regulating tendon formation during embryonic development. These findings provide new insights into the crucial roles of mechanics and tissue mechanical properties in new tendon formation.