A cleft lip or palate is the most common birth defect of babies born in Britain, affecting one in every 700. Genetic faults, smoking, drinking, obesity and folic acid deficiency during pregnancy are all thought to raise the risk of malformation. As the embryo develops, soft-tissue projections on the two sides of the head grow forward, until they bend together and fuse in the middle to form the jaws, cheeks and nose. But when those projections fail to fuse properly, a gap can remain, giving rise to cleft defects. Biologists studying the developing lower jaw of embryonic mice (large oval shape in the centre of the image) say this remarkable self-sculpting ability owes to soft-tissue cells (stained blue) moving and growing automatically in the right direction. Finding out how the cells do this could help in the development of surgery-free face reconstruction therapies.
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