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07/22/2014 08:25 am ET | Updated Jul 22, 2014

Here's What Happens To Every Cell In A Developing Embryo

How does an embryo go from being a lump of cells to a full-fledged nervous system?

Just watch for yourself in The New York Times' trippy video above, which traces the colorful dance of cells in developing fly embryos in 3D. Each colored circle shown in the video represents one cell.

“We want to reconstruct the elemental building plan of animals, tracking each cell from very early development until late stages, so that we know everything that has happened in terms of cell movement and cell division,” Dr. Philipp J. Keller, a biologist at the Howard Hughes Medical Institute's Janelia Research Campus in Virginia, said in a written statement.

Keller's research team images individual cells using a powerful, high-speed microscope, and then tracks their movements with a newly developed computational program that processes the microscope data. For instance, for a fruit fly, that means tracking the paths of around 100,000 cells over thousands of points in time during the course of a whole day. But why go to all this effort?

"Ultimately, we would like to collect the developmental history of every cell in the nervous system and link that information to the cell's final function," Keller said in the statement.

After all, observing how the embryos of fruit flies and mice develop -- and when that process goes awry -- may shed new light on human diseases, he told The New York Times.

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