A mechanochemical instability drives vertebrate gastrulation

Gastrulation is a critical event in vertebrate morphogenesis, characterized by coordinated large-scale multi-cellular movements. One grand challenge in modern biology is understanding how spatio-temporal morphological structures emerge from cellular processes in a developing organism and vary across vertebrates. We derive a theoretical framework that couples tissue flows, stress-dependent myosin activity, and actomyosin cable orientation. Our model, consisting of a set of nonlinear coupled PDEs, predicts the onset and development of observed experimental patterns of wild-type and perturbations of chick gastrulation as a spontaneous instability of a uniform state. We use analysis and numerics to show how our model recapitulates the phase space of gastrulation morphologies seen across vertebrates, consistent with experiments. Altogether, this suggests that early embryonic self-organization follows from a minimal predictive theory of active mechano-sensitive flows.