Nerve cells differ from each other in many ways, among other things in what they look like and what signals they use. The different types of nerve cells are also formed in different places and in different numbers.
The combination of large numbers, great diversity and high precision constitutes the very foundation of the nervous system's enormously complex functions, such as homeostasis, learning/memory and behavior.
Understanding how different nerve cells are formed during the development of an embryo is therefore one of the fundamental challenges of research on the nervous system. This process occurs in many steps, from the establishment of basic nervous system tissue, to giving different stem cells their identity, and further to control which nerve cells each stem cell generates.
We use several model systems, including Drosophila fruit flies, chicken embryos and mice, to increase our understanding of how different nerve cell types are formed during embryonic development.
We try to answer several difficult questions:
- How is information about position in the embryo communicated to dictate the identity of stem cells?
- How does a stem cell know what nerve cells it will form at different times?
- How is the definitive identity of each nerve cell determined?
- How does each nerve cell know how to connect it in different networks?
- How is the cell cycle controlled at different stages of the growth of the nervous system to ensure the formation of the correct number of cells of each cell type?
Solving these basic issues is likely to be important for our understanding not only for normal development but also for different neurological disorders and cancer, as there is increased awareness that many such diseases can be caused by dysfunctional development programs, including defects in proliferation control.