Weimin Zhong

Associate Professor of Molecular, Cellular, and Developmental Biology

Research Interests

asymmetric cell division; differentiation; neurogenesis; progenitor cell; self-renewal; stem cell

Current Projects

(1) Probing the behavior of stem cells by changing their patterns of division
We have generated a set of unique mouse strains in which the division patterns of stem cells in various tissues can be differentially manipulated. We will use these mice to examine how stem cells behave in their microenvironment (niche) under normal and pathological conditions in the nervous system and other tissues. By forcing stem cells to deviate from their normal patterns of division, we intend to identify key regulators of stem cells using molecular and genetic tools.

(2) Examining how cell fates are assigned to maintain tissue homeostasis
To maintain tissue homeostasis, stem cells have to generate differentiated cells of specific types, in correct numbers and at precise times. As a first step to understand how this is accomplished, we will combine studies using mice and Drosophila to elucidate the signaling pathway that enables Numb and ACBD3 proteins to specify distinct daughter cell fates during an asymmetric division. We will also examine whether the process of Golgi fragmentation and reconstitution is a general mechanism for stem cells to coordinate cellular signaling and cell-cycle progression.

(3) Using embryonic stem (ES) cells to probe human developmental mechanisms
We intend to examine whether the findings from our mouse studies are applicable to humans by determining whether Numb-mediated asymmetric cell divisions, as well as the signaling pathways that regulate stem-cell behavior, are used by human ES cells when they are induced to undergo neurogenesis in culture.

Research Summary

We study how stem cells balance the competing needs of self-renewal and differentiation during organogenesis and tissue maintenance, as a means to understand the fundamental biology of stem cells and provide insights for their therapeutic use in treating disease and injury. Currently, we use Numb proteins, which segregate asymmetrically to distinguish the two daughter cells after an asymmetric cell division, as an entry point to examine how neural stem (progenitor) cells are regulated during mouse embryogenesis. We propose and seek to demonstrate a cell-intrinsic mechanism that is generally applicable to somatic stem cells, regardless of their tissue of origin, for their progeny to choose between self-renewal and differentiation. We have generated a set of unique mouse strains that can be used to manipulate stem-cell behavior in various tissues and will use cutting-edge molecular and genetic tools to identify key regulators that enable stem cells to generate diverse cell types.

Extensive Research Description

We are interested in the molecular and cellular mechanisms that govern the behavior of stem cells, in particular how they balance the needs of self-renewal and differentiation during mammalian organogenesis and tissue maintenance. Current research uses neurogenesis in mice as a model system to study how neural stem (progenitor) cells are maintained and how neuronal diversity is generated in the mammalian nervous system. We are examining whether Numb-mediated asymmetric cell division represents a mechanism that is shared by stem cells in many tissues for their progeny to choose between self-renewal and differentiation. By elucidating how this mechanism acts together with other cell-intrinsic and cell-extrinsic cues to form organs and maintain tissue homeostasis, we hope to understand the fundamental biology of stem cells and provide insights for their therapeutic use in repairing or replacing damaged tissues.

Stem cells, whether of embryonic or adult origin, are defined by the ability to produce more stem cells (self-renew) and the potential to generate differentiated offspring for carrying out tissue function. For stem cells involved in organogenesis and tissue maintenance, there is also an essential need to ensure a proper balance between self-renewal and differentiation, since a failure in either task will lead to organ malformation and tissue malfunction. How this is accomplished at the molecular and cellular level, however, remains poorly understood in mammals. Conceptually, stem cells can simultaneously self-renew and differentiate by dividing asymmetrically to produce one daughter cell that remains as a stem cell and another that differentiates. Stem cells, however, may also need to divide symmetrically to produce two stem cells, which can quickly expand their population when responding to a tissue injury, or to generate two differentiated cells, when large numbers of stem cells are no longer necessary towards the end of organogenesis and tissue repair. In other words, understanding the division patterns of stem cells – particularly how they are regulated under normal and pathological conditions – may facilitate a key goal of stem-cell research, which is to repair or replace damaged tissues by introducing exogenous stem cells or expanding endogenous populations.

Asymmetric cell division, a process by which a cell divides to produce two different daughter cells, is widely used by invertebrates to generate cellular diversity during development. In Drosophila, the Numb protein enables the two daughter cells to adopt different fates after such divisions by segregating primarily to one daughter cell. To examine the importance of asymmetric cell division in mammalian development, we identified two mouse numb genes, m-numb (Numb) and numblike (Numbl or nbl). We postulated that mammalian neural progenitor cells, which behave like stem cells during neurogenesis, balance self-renewal and differentiation by segregating Numb proteins asymmetrically to produce a daughter progenitor cell and a neuron. Through a series of loss- and gain-of-function studies in mice, we show that Numb and Numblare redundant but essential for embryogenesis and that asymmetric Numb segregation and, therefore, asymmetric cell division are indeed essential for neural progenitor cells to balance the competing needs of self-renewal and differentiation during neurogenesis. Our studies further reveal a novel cellular mechanism that uses Golgi fragmentation and reconstitution, through changes in the subcellular distribution of an essential Numb partner, the ACBD3 protein, to coordinate cell-cycle progression and cell-fate specification during an asymmetric cell division.

Selected Publications

  • Zhong W. (2008). Timing cell-fate determination during asymmetric cell divisions. Curr. Opin. Neurobiol. 18:472-478
  • Zhou, Y., et al. (2007). The mammalian Golgi controls Numb signaling in asymmetric cell division by releasing ACBD3 during mitosis. Cell 129:163-178.
  • Petersen, P.H., Zou, K., Krauss, S., and Zhong, W. (2004). Continuing role for mouse Numb and Numbl in maintaining progenitor cells during cortical neurogenesis. Nat. Neurosci. 7:803-811.
  • Petersen, P.H., Zou, K., Hwang, J.K., Jan, Y.N., & Zhong, W. (2002). Progenitor cell maintenance requires numb and numblike during mouse neurogenesis. Nature 419:929-934

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