Collage of data and images examining the genes and mechanisms involved in spinal cord cell development.

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How do complex tissues of multicellular organisms develop in a precise and reproducible manner from initially indistinguishable cells?

In most tissues signals – termed morphogens – act as positional cues to control cell fate specification by regulating the transcriptional programme of responding cells.

How do cells receive and interpret these signals? How do these signals regulate gene expression and how is the growth, patterning and morphological elaboration of the spinal cord coordinated? What is the underlying logic of the mechanisms and how does this explain the spatial and temporal dynamics of pattern formation?

To address these questions, we are taking an interdisciplinary approach involving biologists, physicists and computer scientists.

Our focus is on the signalling mechanisms and transcriptional programme that pattern the neural tube.

In ventral regions of the caudal neural tube, the secreted molecule Sonic Hedgehog (Shh) forms an extracellular gradient that governs pattern formation and tissue growth. It does this by regulating the expression of a set of genes, notably transcription factors, which control the identity and proliferation of neural progenitors.

Using a range of molecular, imaging and modelling approaches that combine single cell resolution dynamic assays of morphogen signalling, cell fate specification, gene regulation and growth we are examining how the gradient of Shh signalling is perceived and interpreted by cells to control gene expression and cell behaviour.

We are developing novel computational tools and dynamical systems models to obtain a comprehensive view of neural tube development and to analyse the interdependence between different aspects of pattern formation.

For our experimental studies we use a range models including mouse and chick embryos and mouse and human embryonic stem cells.