Vertebrate Embryo: An Overview of Heart Development and the Utilisation of Multiple Animal Models in Research


Congenital heart defects are the most common birth defects which affect almost 1% of the population. Therefore, researchers have spent time getting a deeper understanding of the complex processes of cardiogenesis, from the development of the heart's architecture to the cellular and molecular processes involved. In achieving this, numerous vertebrate animal models, such as mouse, chick, zebrafish and xenopus, have been utilised in understanding the complexity of heart development. However, key differences exist between the human heart and these vertebrate models.

Key Concepts

  • The early heart tube arises from a population of cells in the visceral mesoderm.
  • A second population of cells known as the second heart field contribute to the developing heart tube, driving developmental processes.
  • Heart looping ensures that the venous and arterial poles are correctly positioned and aligned.
  • Atrial septation divides the primitive atrium into right and left atrial chambers.
  • Ventricular septation allows for the separation of the left and right ventricles.
  • Animal models used to study human cardiogenesis and congenital anomalies have developmental differences to humans, which are important in interpreting experimental results.
  • Animal models have different advantages and limitations as experimental organisms.

Keywords: cardiac looping; chambers; septation; human; mouse; chick; zebrafish; xenopus; experimental models

Figure 1. Gastrulation and formation of the primitive heart field in a human embryo. (a) On the dorsal surface of the embryonic germ disc, cells migrate to the primitive steak, where they invaginate through and migrate cranially. (b) A cross section through the embryonic germ disc shows the migrating cells move between the epiblast and hypoblast, thus forming the mesoderm. (c) Cardiac precursor cells in the mesoderm form a crescent‐shaped cluster at the cranial end of the embryo. (d) A cross section through the cranial portion of the embryo shows the first heart field situated in the visceral mesoderm.
Figure 2. Looping of the primitive human heart tube. (a) A simple heart tube is formed in the midline of the embryo suspended from the foregut endoderm. (b) As the heart tube elongates due to the addition of cells from the second heart field, it deviates to the right forming a C‐shaped tube. (c) As looping continues, the primitive atrium moves posteriorly, ensuring that the outflow tract and inflow tracts (located posterior to the atrial chamber) are now in close proximity before septation of the primitive heart.
Figure 3. An anterior view of the formation of the four‐chambered human heart. (a) Atrial septation is initiated by the growth of a septum primum from the dorsocranial wall, dividing the primitive atrium into left and right. It extends towards the endocardial cushions of the atrioventricular canal. (b) As the septum primum fuses with the endocardial cushion, perforations appear in the cranial part of the septum, forming a communication between the right and left atria, the foramen secundum. The septum secundum is initiated on the right‐hand side of the septum primum. Trabeculations appear in the wall of the ventricle. A muscular septum appears above the interventricular septum, dividing the ventricular chamber into right and left. (c) The septum secundum extends over the septum primum and foramen secundum forming the valve of the foramen ovale. The interventricular septum fuses with the inferior endocardial cushion forming the membranous part of the interventricular septum.


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Further Reading

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Anderson RH, Webb S, Brown NA, Lamers W and Moorman A (2003b) Development of the heart: (3) Formation of the ventricular outflow tracts, arterial valves, and intrapericardial arterial trunks. Heart 89: 1110–1118.

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Moorman A, Webb S, Brown NA, Lamers W and Anderson RH (2003) Development of the heart: (1) Formation of the cardiac chambers and atrial trunks. Heart 89: 806–814.

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Wittig JG and Münsterberg A (2016) The early stages of heart development: insights from chicken embryos. Journal of Cardiovascular Disease Research 3: 12.

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England, Jennifer, and Loughna, Siobhan(Mar 2018) Vertebrate Embryo: An Overview of Heart Development and the Utilisation of Multiple Animal Models in Research. In: eLS. John Wiley & Sons Ltd, Chichester. [doi: 10.1002/9780470015902.a0027698]