Researchers Grow Protoeye in Dish

It’s not quite Avatar, but a movie released today shows, in three dimensions, how a chaotic patch of cells grows into the beginnings of an eyeball. Even more impressive, this protoeye was grown in a laboratory dish. Scientists say the finding brings them closer to growing entire organs in the lab, including eyes that could replace those damaged by injury or disease.

In the past decade, researchers have made dramatic progress in understanding how eyes form. They have learned how to turn on and off essential genes and how to transform embryonic stem cells into retinal cells, which can be transplanted into mice to restore vision. But so far, growing an entire eyeball in the lab has eluded scientists, largely because they’ve been unable to recreate the “optic cup,” a chalice-shaped structure that becomes the back of the eye.

Now Yoshiki Sasai of the RIKEN Center for Developmental Biology in Kobe, Japan, and his colleagues have induced embryonic mouse stem cells to spontaneously form the optic cup in a dish. The key ingredient was a mixture of jellylike proteins, called Matrigel, which forms an enticing bed on which stem cells seem to prefer to lie before turning into the eye’s various structures.

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