Development and Evolutionary Morphogenesis - DEM

The DEM Research Group includes 3 senior researchers (integrated members), two holding academic positions and one holding a post-doctoral grant. The group also includes 4 Ph.D. students and a varying number of Masters students. In addition, an international collaborator, Manuel Koch, expert on extracellular matrix biology, acts as an Associated Research Fellow. One member (Sólveig Thorsteinsdóttir) was the president of the Portuguese Society for Developmental Biology ( in 2013-15 and continues engaged in numerous SPBD activities. Another member (Gabriela Rodrigues) is the president of the ORBEA (Animal Welfare Committee) of FCUL (

Objectives of the Research Group

Part of the mesoderm of all vertebrate embryos segments into somites, transient balls of cells which contain most of the precursors of the axial musculoskeletal system. This system is common to and characterizes all vertebrates, and its functional modification over evolutionary time allowed the conquest of land. How do these apparently homogenous balls of cells give rise to a functional system composed of vertebrae, tendons, blood vessels and skeletal muscle, the latter which is innervated at precisely the appropriate time? How do specific mutations affect their developmental programme and lead to disease, such as the muscular dystrophies or developmental defects in the vertebral column? How were the development of somites and their derivatives modified to produce a muscle pattern able to sustain the vertebral column on land? Our group addresses the cross-talk between the different derivatives of the somites in the shaping of the musculoskeletal system and how, in some cases, defects in these communication events lead to disease. 

The specific objectives of our group are the following:

1. To understand the cellular and molecular processes underlying the development of the axial musculoskeletal system of terrestrial vertebrates. We are particularly focused on how different cell types and tissues communicate via paracrine factors and extracellular matrix molecules ensuring the development of a physiologically functional system.

2. To use our knowledge of the normal development of the axial musculoskeletal system to address what exactly goes wrong in congenital disease states such as in muscular dystrophies, and when cell-cell communication events go awry, such as in cancer.

3. To hypothesize on what cellular and molecular processes have been altered in terrestrial vertebrate embryos to permit the re-organization of their segmented musculature into more complex muscle patterns permitting the sustainment and movements of the axial skeleton on land.

4. Continue pursuing several ongoing collaborations where our expertise on extracellular matrix biology, in vitro biological systems and/or skeletal muscle development is put to use.