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Developmental and Neuronal Cell Biology

The core problem in developmental biology is how spatial asymmetry is established to enable single cells to form complex tissues and entire organisms. Spatial asymmetry in development originates in the ability of a progenitor cell, a fertilized egg or stem cell, to produce two daughter cells with different cell fates. The mechanisms important for such cellular asymmetry is the focus of several labs in the department studying stem cells and their seemingly inexhaustible capacity for self-renewal and differentiation, or investigating how the egg itself is constructed during oogenesis.

Among mechanisms under study are epigenetic programming, transcriptional control, translational regulation, and cytoskeletal dynamics. Other labs are investigating organogenesis whereby groups of diverse cells form complex tissues and organs such as bone, the vascular system, or the brain. Of particular interest here are molecular and cellular mechanisms, such as intercellular signaling, cell-cell fusion, and branching morphogenesis, which direct the development and organization of cells into structurally and functionally intricate multicellular systems. We use a variety of experimental models, from mammalian cells to /Drosophila/, C. elegans, and the mouse, and exploit the power of genetics and innovative cell biological methods to investigate central issues in contemporary developmental biology.

Our ability to think, react and remember relies on the function of the nervous system. We cannot understand the human brain without first elucidating the properties and function of its main unit elements, the neurons. Neurons are complex and specialized cells. However, the improved understanding of cellular evolution achieved over the last several yeas has revealed that even the most sophisticated and unique properties of nerve cells represent an adaptation of basic functions observed in all eukaryotic cells, including unicellular organisms. Thus, cellular neurobiology has become an important chapter of cell biology.

Studies of neurons greatly capitalize on progress in fundamental cell biology. Conversely, research on specialized features of neurons is producing major fall-outs in other areas of biology. Projects of cellular neurobiology in the department focus on mechanisms in membrane traffic at the synapse, on the development and maintenance of cell polarity, on the mechanisms responsible for the heterogenous distribution of organelles and macromolecules within the neuronal cytoplasm and on cell-cell recognition events that mediate neural circuit formation.

Formation and plasticity of synapses are also investigated. In the tradition of the department, questions in these fields are approached in a multidisciplinary fashion using genetics, protein and lipid biochemistry, molecular biology and state of the art light and electron microscopy imaging techniques. Experimental systems include the nematode C. elegans, mouse models, cultured neurons, large model synapses, isolated synaptic preparations and cell free systems.

Special emphasis is placed on interfaces between this basic research and disease.