What is Developmental Biology?

Most broadly put, developmental biologists seek to understand the emergence of all the complexity of a human, an insect or a flower from a single fertilized ovum. Many Stanford faculty both within and outside of the Department of Developmental Biology investigate key developmental questions.

The Emergency of Form from Uniformity

One of the most fundamental questions of developmental biology is how initially symmetric or unformed structures give rise to highly complex three-dimensional functional organs and tissues. An obvious example is the formation of an embyro from an egg, but other examples include the way that a bacteria selects the site for the formation of a flagellum, or a yeast cell its bud site, or a field of epithelial cells the site for the formation of hair cells. Understanding the ways that this fundamental biologic problem is solved by Nature is the topic of projects in the laboratories of Lucy Shapiro, Anne Villeneuve, Alistair Boettiger and Margaret Fuller.

Self Renewal: Stem Cells and Cloning

Purkinje neurons in the developing cerebellum.

Purkinje neurons in the developing cerebellum.

Stem cells have the remarkable property of continually renewing themselves while giving rise to different cell types that can give rise to the cells necessary to make an organ, such as the immune system or the brain. Perhaps, most astounding is the recent discovery that the egg cytoplasm has the ability to reset the nucleus of many cell types to a ground state. From this ground state, perhaps defined by genomic chromatin structure the nucleus can serve as a stem cell to all the cells of an entire organism and produce a genetically identical or "cloned" individual. More specialized stem cells are well defined for the hematologic system and methods of purification of these stem cells, developed at Stanford in the Weissman laboratory, have become the basis of treatment of treatment of leukemia. Stems cells for neurons are being defined and may be useful for treating the many degenerative neurologic diseases. Work in this area is being conducted in the laboratories of Margaret Fuller, Irving WeissmanJames Spudich, Lucy Shapiro, Anne Villeneuve and Seung Kim.

Development of Cell Types and Organ Systems

The origins of individual organ systems from stem cells involves general rules, which are being dissected in fruit flies and worms. These general rules form the conceptual framework for the understanding of the origin of the many thousands of cell types that make up the mammalian body. The ligands receptors, signaling pathways and the way that they are coordinated to form an organism are being studied in many laboratories at Stanford. Roel Nusse's and Gerald Crabtree's laboratory have defined fundamental signaling pathways essential for the formation of many cell types and organ systems. Seung Kim's laboratory is studying the development of the pancreas and David Kingsley's laboratory the skeletonal system.


Development of the Nervous System

A growth cone guides the developing nerve cells and leads to the generation of over a 1000 trillion connections in the mammalian nervous system.

A growth cone guides the developing nerve cells and leads to the generation of over a 1000 trillion connections in the mammalian nervous system.

Understanding the immense complexity of the nervous system presents some of the most challenging problems in developmental biology. However over the past 5 or 10 years, studies in many laboratories have shown that many of the molecules and mechanisms used in other systems are also used in the formation of the nervous system. For example, Wnt signaling and Hedgehog signaling are used in the early formative events of the nervous system and signaling by Ca2+, calcineurin and NFAT is used to convey responses to axonal guidance molecules as developing nerves make connections with their targets. The formation of the nervous system is being studied in many laboratories at Stanford including those of Ben Barres and Gerald Crabtree.

The Evolution of Form and the Mechanisms of Speciation

Work in David Kingsley's laboratory has focused on the three-spine speckleback to understand how organisms have adapted to rapid environmental changes and produced new species. This small fish lives in isolated ponds and lakes and has shown the emergence of new species since the end of the Ice Age. Their work involves analysis of genetic changes in populations of fish that happen to live in beautiful places.

Development and Disease

Islet of Langerhans.

Islet of Langerhans.

Work in Seung Kim's laboratory has shown that defective intercellular signaling underlies common malformations of the developing pancreas, a vital organ that regulates metabolism and nutrient supply in humans. These same signals also maintain the differentiated state of cells in the adult pancreas, thereby preventing formation of cancers.

The Integrative Nature of Studies in Developmental Biology

Collaborations with others around the university are frequent. Many projects have direct medical connections, such as the Seung Kim lab's studies of pancreas development and its relations to diabetes, the Nusse lab studies of Wnt and Hedgehog signaling with their many connections to cancer, the Fuller lab studies of sperm development and their relation to fertility issues, the Shapiro lab's work on bacterial cell cycle with its potential for discovering new antibiotics, and the Weissman and Crabtree lab studies of immunity and development. Many physicians work in Department labs, and many Department students pursue joint M.D./Ph.D. degrees. Other current collaborations involved physics and engineering. Chemistry professor W.E. Moerner is working with the Shapiro lab on monitoring the behaviors of single bacterial proteins. 

The great range of topics is unified because they all relate to the regulators that build and organize living cells. With so much sharing of expertise, it is relatively easy for people in the Department to undertake projects in areas quite new to them. From an educational standpoint, the frequent moves into new areas are valuable training for faculty, postdocs, students, and staff. Learning is constant in this atmosphere. The ongoing successes of students and postdoctoral fellows who have passed through the Department has been a gratifying confirmation of the value of our root principles: sharing facilities, creating frequent communication opportunities, and giving all researchers in the Department the freedom and support they need to explore guided by their own curiosity and inventiveness.