Writing a scientific abstract can be a challenging task: summarizing months of research in around 250 words might seem like a tall order. However, you’ll find that if you break it down into smaller pieces, it’s actually pretty straightforward. Hit ‘em with an intro, lay out what you’re trying to do, show off your main result, and tell people what it all means. Done. Let me explain that with an example (this abstract is from Alwes, F, Hinchen, B, & Extavour, CG (2011). Developmental Biology, 359(1), 110–123).


1. Start by introducing your subject – just a couple of sentences is all you need.

The acquisition of specific cell fates throughout embryonic development is one of the core problems in developmental and evolutionary biology. In the amphipod Parhyale hawaiensis all three germ layers and the germ line are determined by the eight-cell stage.

2. Lay out your biological problem, question, or situation that you’re going to address in one sentence.

Despite this early fate determination, multiple cell types can be replaced following ablation of their founder cells, showing that this embryo also has significant regulative properties.

3. Tell people what they’re going to get, what the main result is, and the primary method(s) you used to achieve this.

Here we present a cellular-level resolution lineage analysis for P. hawaiensis embryos between fertilization and gastrulation, including analysis of cleavage patterns, division times, and clonal behaviors. We compare these cellular behaviors in wild type embryos with those in embryos where specific founder cells have been ablated, or where zygotic transcription has been inhibited.

4. Go into a little more detail about the results – hold off on conclusions for now, just talk about what you found.

We observe that when germ line, endoderm or mesoderm founder cells are ablated, the remaining cells do not alter their cleavage or migration behaviors before the onset of gastrulation. In the absence of zygotic transcription, ingression movements proceed normally, but epibolic movements are disrupted.

5. Explain what these results mean. This is particularly important when your research deviates from existing research.

This indicates that the embryo’s regulative response to germ layer founder loss, in the form of altered cell behavior, is realized in the ~32h between gastrulation and early germ band elongation, and is likely to require zygotic reprogramming rather than alternative deployment of maternally supplied determinants.

6. Time to give the bigger picture: here’s your chance to summarize your contribution to the field. What impact has your research had? How has it instigated that paradigm shift you’re pretty sure totally happened as a result?!

Combining these data with the observations of previous studies, we propose a framework to elucidate the molecular mechanisms that regulate the determinative and regulative properties of the P. hawaiensis embryo.


So there you have it: six simple steps to writing a scientific abstract, complete with a working example from a published paper. Now, keep your coffee levels high, and get out there and get publishing. Or writing. Or researching. Okay, just get back to working on whatever stage you’re at!

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