New technique helps scientists examine energy use of developing embryos

A major breakthrough in the study of embryonic development.


A new technique developed by the University of Plymouth allows scientists to determine the biological traits and behaviors of developing embryos as an energy signature. It is a significant breakthrough in embryonic development and how it can be impacted by external factors such as climate change.

The technique is built around timelapse video captured of aquatic animals, particularly the embryos of a freshwater pond snail Radix balthica – during their earliest and most dynamic life stages.

With every video being made out of a series of individual pixels whose brightness varies with each frame, the group fostered a method for utilizing these variations to follow nitty-gritty changes in energy use.

The resulting energy proxy traits mean scientists can capture all of the traits visible in a video as a spectrum of energy values, capturing a greater breadth of biological response.

Energy proxy traits (EPTs) are a novel approach to high dimensional organismal phenotyping that quantifies the spectrum of energy levels within different temporal frequencies associated with mean pixel value fluctuations from video. They offer significant potential in addressing the phenotyping bottleneck in biology, effectively identifying lethal endpoints and measuring specific functional traits.

Using the technique, scientists demonstrated that the overall energy expressed during the development of an embryo could be used to predict its growth rate. It means it may reflect the actual usage of energy by the embryo itself.

Dr. Oli Tills, Research Fellow in the School of Biological and Marine Sciences and the new study’s lead author, said“Choosing what to measure can often be a tough choice for biologists, but it can drive the outcome of experiments. This choice can be likened to throwing darts while blindfolded, with the hope that you hit the bullseye by choosing biological traits of relevance that respond in informative ways during experiments.”

“Biodiversity makes this task a significant challenge when studying the phenotype by presenting a huge range of form and function to choose from. This study has important implications for how we approach such studies in the future. It presents a method that is transferrable to different species, experimental approaches and which moves away from the limitations of our previous pot luck approach.”

Journal Reference:

  1. Oliver Tills et al. Spectral phenotyping of embryonic development reveals integrative thermodynamic responses. DOI: 10.1186/s12859-021-04152-1
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