A team of genomic researchers headed by biologists at New YorkUniversity's Center for Comparative Functional Genomics, incollaboration with researchers at Harvard University, the Max PlanckInstitute, and Cenix Biosciences, has mapped out a preliminarymolecular diagram of the early stages of embryo formation, offering forthe first time a global look at how a single cell begins its path intoa multi-cellular organism. The findings are reported in the August 11issue of the journal Nature.
The team is studying the function of the genome of Caenorhabditiselegans (C. elegans), the first animal species whose genome wascompletely sequenced and a model organism to study how embryos develop.
With the complete genome sequence of C. elegans, theresearchers sought to comprehend how the parts encoded by the genomeare used to build complex dynamical biological systems--in this case,an engineering diagram for embryo formation. Using a new way to combineresults from different functional genomic approaches including RNAinterference (RNAi), a method for studying the function of genes invivo, the researchers were able to develop a first-draft diagram forthe early embryo at the molecular level, describing how its componentsfit together both physically and logically.
"These results point to a high level of coordination among arelatively small number of molecular machines required for proper earlyembryonic development in C. elegans," said Fabio Piano, an assistantprofessor in NYU's Department of Biology, who headed the research team."This may also be the case for human embryogenesis. The diagramslinking all these genes reveal discrete patterns of interconnections,allowing us to begin to visualize the molecular network underlying acomplex process like early embryogenesis as a whole."
These analyses suggest that out of the almost 20,000 genes inC. elegans, the embryo requires a core set of less than 1,000 genes tocoordinate the early events that guide the development of the animal.The results further suggest specific roles for new genes that had notbeen studied before, and functional tests of a subset of thesesupported the predictions.
Describing how embryos function at the molecular level mayhelp understand how human embryos develop, and may also provide newinsights for cancer research since genes acting in early embryogenesisare often erroneously reactivated in cancer cells.
The research is the latest in a series of studies conducted atNYU's Center for Comparative Functional Genomics in collaboration withresearchers at Harvard and Yale Universities, which set the stage forthese most recent findings. An essential aspect of these studies wasthe coordination between experts in cell and molecular biology andthose with computational and mathematical backgrounds.
At the NYU Center forComparative Functional Genomics, this research program work has beensupported by grants from the National Institute of Child Health andHuman Development to Piano and NSF's ADVANCE Fellows program to KristinGunsalus, assistant research professor in NYU's Department of Biologyand a first author of the study published in Nature.
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