Developmental biology aims to understand how an organism develops—how a single cell becomes an organized grouping of cells that is then programmed at specific times to become specialized for certain tasks. Genes control much of an organism’s development, but environmental stimuli also play a role, resulting in the complex “nature vs. nurture” paradigm. Intramural Research Program (IRP) investigators seek a deeper understanding of human development and the many disorders and diseases that can occur when normal development is disrupted.
Developmental biology in the IRP covers an enormous array of scientific investigation:
- Vertebrate embryogenesis: IRP scientists aim to understand embryogenesis at the genomic, cellular, and organism level, often investigating many components within one system—known as developmental systems biology.
- Cellular function and differentiation: Studying how a particular cell evolves to engage a specific function within the body—whether a secretory cell (sweat, tears, insulin), a neuron, a heart muscle cell, or a fat cell—is key to understanding the many diseases associated with malfunction of different cell types.
- Tissue repair: It has long been observed that embryonic development resembles wound healing in many ways—the cellular divisions and adhesions of both are strikingly similar. However, development occurs almost seamlessly, whereas wounds do not heal perfectly. IRP researchers aim to understand the cellular processes behind developmental tissue modulation, which may help define a new era of cellular therapies for damaged adult tissues.
- Cancer: While embryonic development involves a series of highly controlled and coordinated steps, cancer exhibits a lack of cellular control. Understanding the key regulatory pathways behind development may point the way towards therapies designed to modulate disrupted pathways.
- Stem cell research: Stem cells include the pluripotent cells of a developing embryo that evolve to become one of hundreds of different specialized cells as the embryo grows. Stem cells are also found in adult organisms—in bone marrow, blood, and adipose tissue—and IRP researchers work to understand how to isolate and manipulate adult stem cells into becoming specialized cells that could become therapies for a range of diseases, from diabetes to neuromuscular disorders.
- Chromatin and epigenetics: Part of the “nature vs. nurture” paradigm involves non-genetic mechanisms that play a role in switching on and off various genes during development. IRP scientists are at the forefront of research into the importance of chromatin and epigenetics in many aspects of development and disease, including potential uses in gene therapies.
From the genetic basis of development and cell function to biochemical influences, developmental biology research flows through many Institutes and Centers within the IRP.