Early in development, the heart is a single muscle-wrapped tube without formed valves. Yet survival of the embryo depends on the ability of this tube to pump blood at steadily increasing rates and pressures. Developmental biologists historically have speculated that the heart tube pumps via a peristaltic mechanism, with a wave of contraction propagating from the inflow to the outflow end. Physiological measurements, however, have shown that the flow becomes pulsatile in character quite early in development, before the valves form. Here, we use a computational model for flow though the embryonic heart to explore the pumping mechanism. Results from the model show that endocardial cushions, which are valve primordia arising near the ends of the tube, induce a transition from peristaltic to pulsatile flow. Comparison of numerical results with published experimental data shows reasonably good agreement for various pressure and flow parameters. This study illustrates the interrelationship between form and function in the early embryonic heart.

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