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Study reveals how egg cells get so big

There's a reason why egg cells, or oocytes, are so big: They need to accumulate enough nutrients to support a growing embryo after fertilization, plus mitochondria to power all of that growth. However, biologists don't yet understand the full picture of how egg cells become so large.

A new study in fruit flies, by a team of MIT biologists and mathematicians, reveals that the process through which the oocyte grows significantly and rapidly before fertilization relies on physical phenomena analogous to the exchange of gases between balloons of different sizes. Specifically, the researchers showed that "nurse cells" surrounding the much larger oocyte dump their contents into the larger cell, just as air flows from a smaller balloon into a larger one when they are connected by small tubes in an experimental setup.

"The study shows how physics and biology come together, and how nature can use physical processes to create this robust mechanism," says Jörn Dunkel, an MIT associate professor of physical applied mathematics. "If you want to develop as an embryo, one of the goals is to make things very reproducible, and physics provides a very robust way of achieving certain transport processes."

Dunkel and Adam Martin, an MIT associate professor of biology, are the senior authors of the paper, which appears this week in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. The study's lead authors are postdoc Jasmin Imran Alsous and graduate student Nicolas Romeo. Jonathan Jackson, a Harvard University graduate student, and Frank Mason, a research assistant professor at Vanderbilt University School of Medicine, are also authors of the paper.

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