A mouse’s heart develops from the cells labelled in red. Image by Tyser, Miranda et al. (CC BY 4.0)

When does the heart start to beat?

First heartbeats happen sooner than we previously thought.

The heart is the first organ to form and to begin working in an embryo during pregnancy. It must begin pumping early to supply oxygen and nutrients to the developing embryo. Coordinated contractions of specialised muscle cells in the heart, called cardiomyocytes, generate the force needed to pump blood. The flow of calcium ions into and out of the cardiomyocytes triggers these heartbeats. In addition to triggering heart contractions, calcium ions also act as a messenger that drives changes in which genes are active in the cardiomyocytes and how these cells behave.

Scientists commonly think of the first heartbeat as occurring after a tube-like structure forms in the embryo that will eventually develop into the heart. However, it is not yet clear how the first heartbeat starts or how the initial heartbeats affect further heart development.

Richard Tyser, Antonio Miranda and colleagues now show that the first heartbeat actually occurs much earlier in embryonic development than widely appreciated. In the experiments, videos of live mouse embryos showed that prior to the first heartbeat the flow of calcium ions between different cardiomyocytes is not synchronised. However, as the heart grows these calcium flows become coordinated leading to the first heartbeat. The heartbeats also become faster as the heart grows. Using drugs to block the movement of calcium ions, Tyser, Miranda and colleagues also show that a protein called NCX1 is required to trigger the calcium flows prior to the first heartbeat. Moreover, the experiments revealed that these early heartbeats help drive the growth of cardiomyocytes and shape the developing heart.

Together, the experiments show that the first heartbeats are essential for normal heart development. Future studies are needed to determine what controls the speed of the first heartbeats, and what organises the calcium flows that trigger the first heartbeat. Such studies may help scientists better understand birth defects of the heart, and may suggest strategies to rebuild hearts that have been damaged by a heart attack or other injury.

To find out more

Read the eLife research paper on which this eLife digest is based: “Calcium handling precedes cardiac differentiation to initiate the first heartbeat” (October 11, 2016).
eLife is an open-access journal for outstanding research in the life sciences and biomedicine.
This text was reused under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License.