Following the publication of this news release, a detailed interview with Dr Oliver Tills exploring the current and potential future applications of this technology has been published in Nature Medicine in February 2019. To read the piece, visit https://www.nature.com/articles/d41591-019-00006-9

Revolutionary new technology created at the University of Plymouth could fill a major gap in our understanding of how organisms’ early development will be impacted by climate change.

EmbryoPhenomics combines unique hardware and software to produce automated measurements of the size, shape, movement and heart rate of organisms, capturing the most minute details of their very early development.

It comprises OpenVIM, a fully automated robotic video microscope for recording hundreds of aquatic embryos over long periods, and EmbryoCV, pioneering analytical software which can automatically measure the dynamic process of development for each embryo.

Writing in PLoS Biology, researchers say the technology provides the opportunity to efficiently visualise and measure whole-organism responses to different environments and could be a game-changer for biology.

They also say that while capturing the dynamic responses of tiny early life stages is inherently challenging, these stages are pivotal and can actually have greater sensitivity to environmental stressors than in later life. 

The study’s lead author, Dr Oliver Tills, began developing EmbryoPhenomics around nine years ago during his BSc (Hons) Marine Biology and Coastal Ecology degree.

Now part of the University’s Marine Biology and Ecology Research Centre, he said:

“It has been a huge challenge to reach this point, but at every stage of building this technology we have observed new phenomena and that’s really exciting. The technology we have now is giving us an insight into embryo development that has previously been impossible. The amount of data we are generating is vast and this is enabling us to assess the impacts of raised temperatures, salinity and more in ways that we could never have previously imagined. This technology has the potential to be a real game-changer in assessing the biological impacts of current and future climate change.”

Dr Oliver Tills

For the PLoS Biology paper, researchers from Plymouth and the Italian National Research Council’s Institute of Marine Science report on four experiments in which they generated more than 30 million images of over 600 developing embryos. 

The EmbryoPhenomics technology aims to extract as much biologically relevant information from every single image as possible and to integrate this into a vast high-dimensional dataset. It enables researchers to capture both how an embryo is responding in real time, as well as longer term changes over the course of days or weeks, providing a powerful understanding of the response of embryos to environmental stress.

The experiments focus on two commonly found and ecologically important invertebrate species – a pond snail (Radix balthica) and a marine shrimp (Orchestia gammarellus).

In one experiment they discovered a predictable increase in movement, growth rates and heart rate in embryos grown in 25°C compared with 20°C. Embryos grown at 30°C – a temperature they routinely experience in their environments – exhibited a fundamentally different developmental dynamic, however with decreased rates of growth and movement decreased, but increased heart rates.

It is extremely important that we understand how global environmental change is affecting the sensitive early life stages of different species as these responses are central to biodiversity.

The experiments also identified points at which the embryos would experience extreme, or lethal, biological responses, with the EmbryoPhenomics technology having the potential to prove an extremely powerful tool allowing us to assess the impact of short-term, environmental changes such as weather-related incidents or pollution.

Researchers believe that while these experiments focussed on two species, the technology has been designed to be versatile and applicable to other species.

Professor Simon Rundle said:

“This is not just about taking a quick snapshot but seeing in detail how organisms put themselves together. The early stages of an embryo’s development are its most sensitive and there are many factors which could lead to organisms not progressing from that phase to become adults. By understanding these in more detail we can begin to build a picture of what we might be able to do to ensure biodiversity is not lost as our climate changes.”

See the environment’s influence on embryo development in time-lapse

This time-lapse video shows how an embryo’s movement, growth rates and heart rate can be affected by changes in temperature

Read the full research paper in PLoS Biology: https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pbio.3000074

The Marine Biology and Ecology Research Centre (MBERC)

Members of the MBERC address a broad range of research questions, from the effects of environmental stress on microbes and developing embryos to the management of large scale impacts, such as global climate change.

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The activity highlighted here is funded by the Natural Environment Research Council (NERC)

NERC is the UK's main agency for funding and managing research, training and knowledge exchange in the environmental sciences. Our work covers the full range of atmospheric, Earth, biological, terrestrial and aquatic science, from the deep oceans to the upper atmosphere and from the poles to the equator. We coordinate some of the world's most exciting research projects, tackling major environmental issues such as climate change, environmental influences on human health, the genetic make-up of life on Earth, and much more.

NERC is part of UK Research & Innovation, a non-departmental public body funded by a grant-in-aid from the UK government. www.ukri.org