A relatively new field, Developmental Biology is revolutionizing drug discovery by investigating how genes exert their influence on how organisms progress from embryo to adult and proceed through aging. Understanding the basic mechanisms of cell growth and the role genetics play in this process is the focus of this research theme within McGill University’s Life Sciences Complex (LSC). When this process breaks down, tissue and organ development is affected often with devastating results, including miscarriage, neurodegenerative disease and cancer.
Developmental Biology is at its essence about forging connections. So for James McGill Chair and Professor of Biology Paul Lasko, Theme Lead for Developmental Biology and a key player in the development of the LSC, the collaborative environment fostered by the Complex is not only important, it is essential. "Science has become much more collaborative and also much more equipment-intensive, so the building was designed around shared spaces to encourage interactions among people and also areas that were just dedicated to equipment that many different labs would share," he explains. The LSC has been a game changer, he adds. "Since the Complex opened we've hired several new professors in the department from all over the world and it's this Complex that attracted them here. We're in a different league than we were before, there's no question about it."
Three big breakthroughs in Developmental Biology
1. Teasing out the inner workings of the cell cycle: Working at the interface between physics and biology, Associate Professor of Biology Dr. Gary Brouhard and his lab focus on microtubules, microscopic tubular polymers of the protein tubulin that are the structural components of cells. They are constantly assembling and disassembling as part of the cell cycle and can generate force and move things around in the cell. When things go wrong in this process, usually the result of a genetic mutation, the ensuing microtubule defect can lead to disease. While examining a microtubule binding protein called doublecortin using a powerful microscope rigged with an ultrasensitive digital camera, Dr. Brouhard and his team uncovered the process leading to one such defect. This in turn revealed the cause of a rare genetic form of epilepsy called double cortex syndrome. By unlocking these basic cellular functions Dr. Brouhard and his team hope to eventually pave the way to therapeutics and prevention for diseases like this.
Developmental Cell. 2012 Jul 17;23(1):181-92. doi: 10.1016/j.devcel.2012.05.006. Epub 2012 Jun 21
2. New insights challenge age-old assumptions: Aging is a main societal challenge of the future. Targeting the aging process by pharmacological intervention is now one of the new frontiers of biomedical science. In the last 10 years Professor of Biology and Campbell Chair of Developmental Biology Dr. Siegfried Hekimi and his group have obtained compelling evidence that, contrary to previous belief, reactive oxygen species (also known as free radicals) are not responsible for the aging process. On the contrary, they can be used to combat aging. These and other insights have allowed us to develop successful new methods of screening for drugs capable of directly targeting aging and age-dependent diseases, in particular mitochondrial and metabolic diseases.
Frontiers in Genetics. 2016 Sep 14;7:161. doi: 10.3389/fgene.2016.00161. eCollection 2016.
3. Germ cells' role in epigenetics: Everyone knows how important germ cells are in transmitting valuable genetic information to subsequent generations, but how do germ cells know how to mark genes that are meant to be epigenetically modified in situations of adaptation? Professor of Biology Dr. Richard Roy and his lab are investigating a key enzyme called AMPK that senses numerous cellular and organismal stresses and regulates changes to the epigenetic landscape that help to mediate this adaptation by changing gene expression. How this might occur is still mysterious, but Dr. Roy's indicators suggest that a novel communication system exists between cells, like neurons, where stresses can be sensed, and the germline, where the epigenetic changes must be laid down to enhance the ability of successive generations to adapt to such long term stresses.
Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences 2017 March 114: E2689-E2698 doi: 10.1073/pnas.1616171114