We are studying how cells make decisions about their fate during embryo development and in the adult; whether to multiply or not, whether to stay the same or specialise, and which cell type to become.
Animals start life as a single cell: a fertilised egg that grows and multiplies to form millions of cells making up all the tissues and organs of the body. Along the way, cells need to decide what actions to follow, such as dividing or dying, or what to become - for example, whether to become nerve cells or supporting cells in the brain.
We are studying how cells make these choices and the genes that direct their fate. We’re particularly interested in the stem cells that correspond to early embryo cells, which have the capacity to turn into many different cells types. We are also studying how specific structures, such as the pituitary gland or the brain, develop as an embryo grows, and how these come to contain tissue-specific stem cells, and in turn what controls the fate of these stem cells.
We are also investigating how an embryo’s genetic makeup determines whether it will develop as male or female – a process known as sex determination. Female mammals have two X chromosomes, while a male has an X and Y. We are studying how the genes on these chromosomes and elsewhere in the genome work together to direct the formation of ovaries in females or testes in males, and how, once made, the decision is retained. Knowledge about how sex determination works helps us to understand what happens when an individual’s genetic makeup doesn’t match their physical sex.
Our research is revealing detailed information about the processes of normal development. And we are gaining new understanding about the role of stem cells in human health and disease, pointing towards potential avenues for future therapies.