Scientists have captured the first heartbeat of a zebra embryo. The magical moment of the beginning of this animal’s life is all the more remarkable because the existence of this animal in the wild can be quite short, if we take into account the predators that threaten it.
When the first heartbeat occurs in a zebra embryo
The first heartbeat of a zebra embryo was captured on video by researchers in a short “window” of about 20 hours of its development. The heart of the embryo went into action suddenly emerging from an assembly of single cells.
“It was like someone flipped a switch,” said Harvard University biophysicist Adam Cohen, lead author of a new study published in Nature.
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Using a high-performance microscope, Harvard researchers have conducted several such studies over several decades, in which they were able to observe the magical moment of the first heartbeat in chicken, rat and mouse embryos, focusing now on the identification of the same moment and in the case of zebras.
It has become clear from previous research that the first heartbeat occurs even before the formation of the first cardiac structure.
What the researchers discovered
The first sign of activity is identified within the multitude of heart muscle cells, called cardiomyocytes, which are full of calcium ions but do not yet show any form of organization.
In mature hearts, calcium ions accumulate inside and outside the cardiomyocytes, generating the action potential that triggers the heart’s contractions.
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Lead researcher Bill Jia, along with Cohen and the rest of the team, followed up on previous studies by measuring the “waves” of calcium ions organized and propagated as a developing zebrafish embryo triggers its first heartbeat.
“The heart beats about 3 billion times in a normal human life and never needs to rest. We wanted to see the exact moment when this formidable machine starts up,” said Cohen.
The connection with the first heartbeat in humans
The first few heartbeats were a little irregular, but very quickly they settled into synchronized contractions.
“A rhythmic, spatially structured pulsation appeared long before the connection to the circulatory system and blood pumping was established,” the researchers noted.
What’s more, Jia, Cohen, and their colleagues noted that embryonic zebrafish heart cells went into a state of agitation about 90 minutes before the first heartbeat, as if they knew they had to prepare to enter in action.
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Given the similarities between zebra, chicken, rat and mouse embryos, the researchers believe that underlining the mechanisms of heart formation could be common to all vertebrates – the group of animals that have a backbone that includes humans.
If so, the study could lead to future research into how irregular heart rate problems, such as arrhythmias, can occur in humans.