Darren Gilmour


Collective Cell Biology of Organ Self-Assembly

Collective behaviour lies at the heart of all biological design. Whether it is the assembly of proteins into complexes or the organisation of animal societies, collective interaction creates something much greater than the sum of the parts. A breathtaking example of collective behaviour is seen during embryogenesis, when thousands of cells self-assemble to form functional tissues and organs. Given the key role played by collective cell behaviour in organ formation, wound repair and cancer, it is surprising how little we know about how cells organise each other.

We take an integrative, multi-scale approach to study how migrating cells assemble into functional organs, using the zebrafish lateral line organ as our primary experimental model. Here, a migrating epithelial primordium comprising of 100 cells, self-assembles and deposits a series of rosette-like mechanosensory organs across the surface of the embryo. Its superficial migration route, beneath a single transparent cell layer, makes it the dream in vivo sample for quantitative imaging and acute perturbation approaches such as optogenetics.

The focus of our group is to use the lateral line and related epithelial organs to address the general question of how dynamic cell behaviours feed back on gene expression to allow ‘contextual control’ cell fate in development and disease. We have developed in vivo imaging, analysis and acute perturbation tools that allow the collective cell biology of organ differentiation to be interrogated at different spatiotemporal scales. Our long-term goal is to provide an understanding of how dynamic cell organisation and gene expression are integrated during tissue morphogenesis, mechanistic insights that should help advance the development of ‘organs in the dish’ for regenerative medicine. 

Image: Correlative Light Electron Microscopy image of lateral line organ showing secreted Fgf3-GFP concentrated in sealed microlumen.



Professor, Institute of Molecular Life Sciences, University of Zurich


Group Leader European Molecular Biology Laboratory (EMBL), Heidelberg, Germany


Postdoc with Prof. C. Nüsslein-Volhard at MPI, Tübingen


Ph.D with Prof. Martin Evans, University of Cambridge


B.Sc (Hons). University of Glasgow