The heart is the first functioning organ in the developing embryo and a detailed understanding of the molecular and cellular mechanisms involved in its formation provides insights into congenital malformations affecting its function and therefore the survival of the organism. Because many developmental mechanisms are highly conserved, it is possible to extrapolate from observations made in invertebrate and vertebrate model organisms to humans. This review will highlight the contributions made through studying heart development in avian embryos, particularly the chicken. The major advantage of chick embryos is their accessibility for surgical manipulation and functional interference approaches, both gain- and loss-of-function. In addition to experiments performed in ovo
, the dissection of tissues for ex vivo
culture, genomic, or biochemical approaches is straightforward. Furthermore, embryos can be cultured for time-lapse imaging, which enables tracking of fluorescently labeled cells and detailed analysis of tissue morphogenesis. Owing to these features, investigations in chick embryos have led to important discoveries, often complementing genetic studies in mice and zebrafish. As well as including some historical aspects, we cover here some of the crucial advances made in understanding early heart development using the chicken model.
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