Scientists have discovered how three genes work together to regulate the development of nerve cells--fundamental new knowledge that could boost efforts in other areas, including cancer research.
In the current issue of the journal Cell, published on August 8, two teams of researchers report that they independently made the same discovery. One team is led by Zhi-Chun Lai, assistant professor of biology, biochemistry, and molecular biology at Penn State, and Richard W. Carthew, assistant professor of biology at the University of Pittsburgh. The leader of the other research team is Gerald M. Rubin, of the University of California at Berkeley. The research is expected to contribute to the understanding of the nervous system and the brain, which is made up of billions of neurosn.
To make their discovery, Lai and Carthew's team studied fruit-fly eyes to figure out which genes regulate the development of photoreceptor neurons, which convert light signals into chemical signals that the brain can understand. The team used both genetic studies and cell-culture studies to complement and confirm their findings. "The fly genes we are studying are amazingly similar to their corresponding human genes and, at the very fundamental cellular level, there is no difference between the human cell and the fly cell," Lai explains. "Plus flies are a very good organism for genetic engineering."
During a fly's development, on about the fourth day of life, certain proto-eye cells receive instructions from the fly's genes to become either light-filtering cone cells or photoreceptor neurons. "That's when we dissect the eyes to look at them under the microscope," Lai says.
External signals tell the developing cells what kind of cell to become
by initiating a cascade of internal molecular reactions called the "signal
transduction pathway." "Cancer can result if errors occur in
Contact: Zhi-Chun Lai