In 1873 Italy, Camillo Golgi created the black reaction technique, which enabled scientists to stain and view the structure of neurons, the specialized cells that compose the nervous system. During the nineteenth century, scientists were studying cells and proposed cell theory, which describes the basic characteristics of cells as fundamental units of life. However, cell theory struggled to explain neurons as they are specialized cells and more complex in structure than cells of other tissues. Prior to Golgi’s black reaction, other neuron staining techniques did not enable scientists to clearly and completely view entire neurons without damaging the tissue and obscuring the form. By enabling scientists to study individual neurons and neural tissues, Golgi’s black reaction enables researchers to better study the nervous system and how it develops.

The Notch signaling pathway is a mechanism in animals by which adjacent cells communicate with each other, conveying spatial information and genetic instructions for the animal's development. All multicellular animals utilize Notch signaling, which contributes to the formation, growth, and development of embryos (embryogenesis). Notch signaling also contributes to the differentiation of embryonic cells into various types of cells into various types of cells, such as neurons. Research into the Notch gene in fruit flies began in the early twentieth century, but not until the end of the twentieth century did researchers begin to uncover, in many different species, the roles of Notch proteins for cell to cell signaling. Researchers have also found that dysfunction in the pathway can contribute to diseases such as cancer and Alzheimer's.

Among other functions, the Notch signaling pathway forestalls the process of myogenesis in animals. The Notch signaling pathway is a pathway in animals by which two adjacent cells within an organism use a protein named Notch to mechanically interact with each other. Myogenesis is the formation of muscle that occurs throughout an animal's development, from embryo to the end of life. The cellular precursors of skeletal muscle originate in somites that form along the dorsal side of the organism. The Notch signaling pathway is active in multiple aspects of somitogenesis, and it continues to be a critical regulator during myogenesis. Throughout the life of an organism, Notch signaling prevents the differentiation of muscle progenitor cells into muscle cells. Such preventions help maintain populations of progenitor cells that can remain dormant until the growth or repair of muscle is necessary, at which point the Notch signal to the muscle progenitor cells is disrupted, and the muscle progenitor cells differentiate into muscle fibers and cells. Without Notch signaling, myogenesis proceeds prematurely and dissipates before mature muscle can form.

Francis Harry Compton Crick, who co-discovered the structure of deoxyribonucleic acid (DNA) in 1953 in Cambridge, England, also developed The Central Dogma of Molecular Biology, and further clarified the relationship between nucleotides and protein synthesis. Crick received the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine that he shared with James Watson and Maurice Wilkins in 1962 for their discovery of the molecular structure of DNA. Crick's results on the genetic material found in all living organisms advanced theories of inheritance and spurred further studies into the field of genetics and embryology.

The hedgehog signaling pathway is a mechanism that directs the development of embryonic cells in animals, from invertebrates to vertebrates. The hedgehog signaling pathway is a system of genes and gene products, mostly proteins, that convert one kind of signal into another, called transduction. In 1980, Christiane Nusslein-Volhard and Eric F. Wieschaus, at the European Molecular Biology Laboratory in Heidelberg, Germany, identified several fruit fly (Drosophila melanogaster) genes. They found that when those genes were changed or mutated, the mutated genes disrupted the normal development of fruit fly larvae. The researchers called one of the genes hedgehog (abbreviated hh). Nusslein-Volhard, Wieschaus, and Edward B. Lewis, at the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena, California, shared the 1995 Nobel Prize for Physiology or Medicine for their research on how genes control early embryonic development in fruit flies. The hedgehog signaling pathway is conserved across many animal taxa or phyla, from Drosophila to humans. The hedgehog signaling pathway controls several key components of embryonic development, stem-cell maintenance, and it influences the development of some cancers.

Experiments conducted by Elizabeth Blackburn, Carol Greider, and Jack Szostak from 1982 to 1989 provided theories of how the ends of chromosomes, called telomeres, and the enzyme that repairs telomeres, called telomerase, worked. The experiments took place at the Sidney Farber Cancer Institute and at Harvard Medical School in Boston, Massachusetts, and at the University of California in Berkeley, California. For their research on telomeres and telomerase, Blackburn, Greider, and Szostak received the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine in 2009. Telomeres and telomerase affect the lifespan of mammalian cells and ensure that cells rapidly develop within developing embryos.

Carol Widney Greider studied telomeres and telomerase in the US at the turn of the twenty-first century. She worked primarily at the University of California, Berkeley in Berkeley, California. She received the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine in 2009, along with Elizabeth Blackburn and Jack Szostak, for their research on telomeres and telomerase. Telomeres are repetitive sequences of DNA at the ends of chromosomes that protect chromosomes from tangling, and they provide some protection from mutations. Greider also studied telomerase, an enzyme that repairs telomeres. Without telomeres, chromosomes are subject to mutations that can lead to cell death, and without telomerase, cells might not reproduce fast enough during embryonic development. Greider's research on telomeres helped scientists explain how chromosomes function within cells.

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The Spemann-Mangold organizer, also known as the Spemann organizer, is a cluster of cells in the developing embryo of an amphibian that induces development of the central nervous system. Hilde Mangold was a PhD candidate who conducted the organizer experiment in 1921 under the direction of her graduate advisor, Hans Spemann, at the University of Freiburg in Freiburg, German. The discovery of the Spemann-Mangold organizer introduced the concept of induction in embryonic development. Now integral to the field of developmental biology, induction is the process by which the identity of certain cells influences the developmental fate of surrounding cells. Spemann received the Nobel Prize in Medicine in 1935 for his work in describing the process of induction in amphibians. The Spemann-Mangold organizer drew the attention of embryologists, and it spurred numerous experiments on the nature of induction in many types of developing embryos.

During the twentieth century in the United States, Alfred Day Hershey studied phages, or viruses that infect bacteria, and experimentally verified that genes were made of deoxyribonucleic acid, or DNA. Genes are molecular, heritable instructions for how an organism develops. When Hershey started to study phages, scientists did not know if phages contained genes, or whether genes were made of DNA or protein. In 1952, Hershey and his research assistant, Martha Chase, conducted phage experiments that convinced scientists that genes were made of DNA. For his work with phages, Hershey shared the 1969 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine with Max Delbrück and Salvador Luria. Hershey conducted experiments with results that connected DNA to the function of genes, thereby changing the way scientists studied molecular biology and the development of organisms.

Telomerase is an enzyme that regulates the lengths of telomeres in the cells of many organisms, and in humans it begins to function int the early stages of embryonic development. Telomeres are repetitive sequences of DNA on the ends of chromosomes that protect chromosomes from sticking to each other or tangling. In 1989, Gregg Morin found that telomerase was present in human cells. In 1996, Woodring Wright and his team examined human embryonic cells and found that telomerase was active in them. Scientists manipulate telomerase in cells to give cells the capacity to replicate infinitely. Telomerase is also necessary for stem cells to replicate themselves and to develop into more specialized cells in embryos and fetuses.

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