John Spangler Nicholas, an American biologist, was born on 10 March 1895 in Allegheny, Pennsylvania. He was the only child of Elizabeth Ellen Spangler, a teacher, and Samuel Trauger Nicholas, a Lutheran minister. Nicholas held myriad administrative positions throughout his life and his contributions to biology spanned several sub-disciplines, but his most notable accomplishments were in the field of embryology.

When placental mammals are born their circulatory systems undergo radical changes as the newborns are prepared for independent life. The lungs are engaged, becoming the primary source of fresh oxygen, replacing the placental barrier as a means for blood-gas exchange.

Conrad Hal Waddington's "Experiments on Embryonic Induction III," published in 1934 in the Journal of Experimental Biology, describes the discovery that the primitive streak induces the mammalian embryo. Waddington's hypothesis was that a transplanted primitive streak could induce neural tissue in the ectoderm of the rabbit embryo. The primitive streak defines the axis of an embryo and is capable of inducing the differentiation of various tissues in a developing embryo during gastrulation. In this experiment Waddington was, in fact, able to induce neural differentiation. Waddington noted that the tissue is "competent"; for a chick organizer, and by deduction a mammalian organizer must exist. Competence refers to a cell's ability to respond to an inducing signal, which is temporally limited to certain developmental stages. Waddington's initial work laid the foundation for many decades of research to follow, including further experiments by Waddington with the mammalian organizer.

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