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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 assistant researcher. The group currently includes 1 PhD student and 2 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. Moreover, both are members of the Coordination Committee of the FCUL-Microscopy Facility (

Objectives of the Research Group

Our group uses a Developmental Biology approach to ask fundamental questions about how organisms, and the organs and tissues they contain, develop. Notably, it is at the organ and tissue levels that diseases become manifest. For this reason, Developmental Biology has been, and continues to be, very effective in delivering explanations for diseases or medically relevant processes including birth defects, cancer, wound healing, tissue regeneration and regenerative medicine, including stem cell biology.

We work primarily on understanding how components of the extracellular matrix, the macromolecular network that exists between cells, influences cell behaviour, both chemically and mechanically. Our major model system is the development of the amniote musculoskeletal system and we are interested in how the different cell types that compose this system communicate and regulate each other’s development and how, in certain cases, defects in these communication events lead to disease. 

Finally, we are also interested in studying the role the extracellular matrix plays in regulating cellular responses to stress and diseases other than those of the musculoskeletal system, like for example in cancer.  

The specific objectives of our group are the following:

  1. To understand the cellular and molecular processes underlying the development of the musculoskeletal system. 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. We are also interested in how the segmented axial muscle pattern in amniote embryos is re-organized into a pattern that sustains the axial skeleton on land.
  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.
  3. To study, using embryos and in vitro cell culture systems, how the chemical and mechanical properties of the extracellular matrix impacts cell responses during development and what happens in situations where they go awry, such as in muscular dystrophies or cancer.
  4. To pursue several ongoing collaborations where our expertise on extracellular matrix biology, embryo development, in vitro biological systems and/or cellular responses to disease is used.

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 extracellular matrix biology.