We want to understand how cells control their genes in order to become specialised.
Many cells undergo a process called differentiation, where they switch specific sets of genes on or off in order to carry out a specialised role. Even something as simple as a single-celled yeast can differentiate, producing specialised sex cells called gametes in response to specific changes in the environment around them.
In order to understand how these cells make the decision to differentiate, we are studying the genes and molecules that are active in budding yeast as they produce gametes.
Unlike animal cells, which use many different genes to decide their fate, yeast use only two. We are investigating how these two ‘master genes’ are switched on or off in response to changes in the environment – such as the availability of food – and how they use information coming from inside and outside the cell to trigger differentiation.
We are very interested in molecules called RNAs, which are produced when particular sections of DNA are ‘read’ and are thought to be involved in controlling gene activity and differentiation.
Not only is our work revealing the underlying biological rules that govern differentiation, our findings are also shedding light on what might be going on when cells ‘forget’ their fate as cancer starts to grow.