Biologists investigated chicken eggs at the gastrulation stage – between 12 and 14 hours after fertilisation.
They found that some cells would go on to create the anterior and secondary heart fields – after the initial formation of a primitive linear heart tube.
This method of understanding the correlation between the embryonic origin of cells and later stages of development is called ‘fate mapping’.
The addition of these early cells to the growing heart is crucial as it allows the heart to develop and form other important structures including the outflow tract.
The research is the first to ‘fate map’ the origin of the cells which contribute to the outflow tract in early stage embryos.
Many cardiac malformations present in newborns are associated with the outflow tract and it is hoped that understanding some of the underlying causes may be helpful to affected families.
Prof Andrea Münsterberg from the school of Biological Sciences at UEA, said: “We were researching chick embryos, but the process of development in humans is very similar. However while the gastrulation stage takes place within just a few hours in chicks, it takes a little longer in humans and happens in the third week of pregnancy.
“It is likely that what we learn in chick embryos can be applied to human development. The next step in our research will be to identify the factors, which guide these early cardiac progenitor cells to the right place at the correct time.”
Dr Helene Wilson, research advisor at the British Heart Foundation, said: “Congenital heart disease affects about one in every 145 births. This exciting study has shed new light on how the heart develops at a very early stage by labelling specific cells involved in the development of the heart in an embryo and tracking what happens to them over time.
“It’s vital to increase our understanding of this process because if things go wrong at this point, it can lead to congenital heart abnormalities and disease. There have been many groundbreaking advances in understanding the causes of congenital heart diseases, and in treating them, but research like this is important to further our knowledge and could lead to improvements in treatments in the future.”
‘Fate mapping identifies the origin of SHF/AHF progenitors in the chick primitive streak’ by Esther Camp (UEA), Susanne Dietrich (University of Portsmouth) and Andrea Münsterberg (UEA) is published by PLOS ONE on December 13, 2012.