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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 includes 3 Ph.D. students, 1 grant holder and a varying number of MSc students. One member (Sólveig Thorsteinsdóttir) is on the coordination committee of the undergraduate degree in Biology and of the MSc programme in Evolutionary and Developmental Biology. She is also active within the Portuguese Society for Developmental Biology ( Another member (Gabriela Rodrigues) is the president of the ORBEA (Animal Welfare Committee) of FCUL ( and is a member of the Executive Committee of the cE3c. Both of them are members of the Coordination Committee of the FCUL-Microscopy Facility (

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 characterizes all vertebrates, and its functional modifications over evolutionary time allowed the conquest of land. Our group studies the cross-talk between different cells and cell types in the shaping of the musculoskeletal system and how, in certain 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 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 musculoskeletal system to address what exactly goes wrong in congenital disease states, such as the muscular dystrophies, where the communication between cells and the extracellular matrix are affected and use this knowledge to pinpoint therapeutic avenues for these diseases. We are also interested in studying situations where cell-cell communication events within certain microenvironments 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. To pursue several ongoing collaborations where our expertise on extracellular matrix biology, in vitro biological systems and/or skeletal muscle development is put to use.

We have several international collaborations: with Dean J. Burkin at the University of Nevada (USA) on the study of mouse models of LAMA2-Congenital Muscular Dystrophy, with Shahragim Tajbakhsh at the Institut Pasteur (France) on skeletal muscle development, with Patrícia Ybot-Gonzalez at the Instituto de Biomedicina de Sevilla (Spain) on laminins during mouse embryo development, with Theodor Smit at the University of Amsterdam (The Netherlands) on the mechanobiology of somitogenesis, and with Manuel Koch at the University of Cologne (Germany) on the extracellular matrix biology of skeletal muscle.