How does a multi-cellular organism with specialized organs andtissues develop from a single cell? A team of genomics researchers hasmoved closer to answering this question by creating the firstcomprehensive diagram of the molecular interactions that orchestrateearly embryo development.
The work--a collaborative effort by scientists from New York University(NYU), Harvard University, the Max Planck Institute and CenixBioScience in Dresden, Germany--appears in the Aug. 11 issue of thejournal Nature.
The team examined the first two cell divisions of Caenorhabditiselegans--a small, transparent, soil-dwelling roundworm widely used as amodel organism for studying embryo development and the first animal tohave its entire genome sequenced. They used a new approach to combineinformation from several large-scale, genomics studies on the functionsand activity profiles of C. elegans genes and proteins. From theirefforts emerged a detailed view of the molecular interaction networksthat drive early embryo development.
"The earliest stages of embryo development are important to studybecause they set up the framework for all subsequent development inthat animal," said Kris Gunsalus, NYU researcher and a lead author ofthe study. By the first cell division, the conditions that influencethe worm's specialized tissue and organ development and dictate itsbody plan have already been established. "The integrated picture wegenerated in this work provides a 'first draft' molecular map of earlyembryo development from a global, system-wide perspective."
Their map suggests that a small number of protein groups orclusters--dubbed "molecular machines" by the researchers--coordinatesproper embryo development in the worm. The observed "clustering"patterns suggested potential roles for several unstudiedgenes--information that was not obvious from the original, individualstudies. Subsequent experiments confirmed these functions anddemonstrated the predictive power of their approach.
C. elegans contains many of the genes and proteins found in morecomplex organisms--including humans--so these results will helpscientists understand more about the universal aspects of development.
The National Science Foundation (NSF) supported two members of theresearch team, including Gunsalus, who received an NSF ADVANCE Fellowsaward. The goal of the ADVANCE program is to increase therepresentation and advancement of women in academic science andengineering careers. "The ADVANCE grant gave me the freedom to developskills and pursue collaborative projects that moved my professionalcareer forward," said Gunsalus. "For me, the ADVANCE award was a greatopportunity to kick-start a new phase of my career."
The National Institutes of Health and the Taplin Funds for Discovery also supported the work.
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