Neurons vs glia: building the spinal cord from single cells during development

Key information

Application close date
07 February 2023, 11:59 GMT
Hours per week
36 (full time)
Application guidance
Posted 20 December 2022

Research topics

Developmental Biology Genetics & Genomics Model Organisms Stem Cells
Background texture taken from the lab imagery.

This is a summer student position supervised by Giulia Boezio & Tom Frith in James Briscoe's lab.

Introduction to the Science

The central nervous system is assembled in a precise and reliable manner, which is necessary for the wiring of nerves into functional neural circuits. Our research focuses on the spinal cord, which is the part of the nervous system that helps to sense our environment and respond to it by moving muscles. Our goal is to understand how the spinal cord forms during embryonic development by determining the mechanisms that generate the many different cells that build this organ. This knowledge will contribute to our understanding how embryos develop, as well as shedding light on diseased and damaged nervous systems.

About the Project

The spinal cord contains two specialised cell types: neurons, which carry information required to control numerous processes, including walking; and glia, which support the neurons. During spinal cord development, neurons are formed first, followed by glia. However, we do not know whether these cell types derive from the same or distinct stem cells in the spinal cord. Furthermore, genes that are required for the formation of glia are reactivated in glioblastoma, a highly aggressive brain tumour. Therefore, understanding where these different cells come from and how different genes control their fate will also shine a light on the causes of diseases.

This project will use fluorescence microscopy and molecular biology in the chicken spinal cord and compare it with mouse stem cells to identify genes that are expressed in different species as the neurons and glia are formed. We will also test the effect of specific genes on how cells become neurons or glia in the spinal cord by using knockdown techniques.

About You

This project would suit a student in a biological or biomedical program. It will involve a combination of molecular biology techniques (such as PCR, immunostainings, and fluorescence microscopy), cell culture and chicken embryo work.


1.         Rao, M.S., Noble, M. and Mayer-Pröschel, M. (1998)

            A tripotential glial precursor cell is present in the developing spinal cord.

            Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America 95: 3996-4001. PubMed abstract

2.         Sagner, A. and Briscoe, J. (2019)

            Establishing neuronal diversity in the spinal cord: a time and a place.

            Development 146: dev182154. PubMed abstract