At the moment of our conception we were a single cell. At birth, however, we possess a complex multicellular body composed of many trillion cells (a number that looks like this 10.000.000.000.000).
Each one of these cells must execute a different task: transmitting the electrical impulses (neurons in the brain), contracting (muscle and pumping heart cells), transporting oxygen (red blood cells), and many others. But all the cells within a single organism, with very rare exceptions, possess the same genetic material. How could a single “instruction manual” impose a different identity to each cell?
Cells communicate by exchanging signalling molecules to inform each other about their position. When a signal is received from a cell, it culminates - after complicated biochemical cascades - in the activation of specific combinations of genes, causing that cell to acquire a distinct identity and function.
However, a relatively small number of signalling cascades is known. How could they drive the wide-range of differentiation fates existing in an adult body?
Understanding this is important, as several human pathological conditions arise when these mechanisms are perturbed. The discovery of novel molecular details of embryonic development bears the potential of generating new diagnostic markers and, perhaps in the future, novel therapeutic avenues for curing cancer and other pathological conditions.
We make use of sophisticated state-of-the-art tools, from mouse genetics to high-throughput biochemical approaches, to discover the composition of signals and the protein “arsenal” that, in each cell type, allows the activation of the correct genes, while leaving silent many others.
Our experimental efforts are focused on the so-called ‘Wnt signalling pathway’, a molecular cascade important for virtually all aspects of development, and whose deregulation causes human malformations and several forms of aggressive cancer.