The stunning pigmentation of tigers, the massive jaws of sharks, and the hyper-acute vision of eagles. These and other remarkable features of higher organisms (vertebrates) derive from a small group of powerful cells, called neural crest cells, that arose more than 500 million years ago. Molecular biologist Carole LaBonne of Northwestern University in Illinois studies how neural crest cells help give rise to these important vertebrate structures throughout development.
Very early during embryonic development, stem cells differentiate into different layers: mesoderm, endoderm, and ectoderm. Each of these layers then gives rise to different cell and tissue types. For example, the ectoderm becomes skin and nerve cells. Mesoderm turns into muscle, bone, fat, blood and the circulatory system. Endoderm forms internal structures such as lungs and digestive organs.
These three layers are present in vertebrates—animals with a backbone and well-defined heads, such as fish, birds, reptiles, and mammals—as well as animals without backbones, such as the marine-dwelling Lancelets and Tunicates (referred to as non-vertebrate chordates). Unlike cells in these layers, neural crest cells, which are found only in vertebrates, don’t specialize until much later in development. The delay gives neural crests cells the extra time and flexibility to sculpt the complex anatomical structures found only in vertebrate animals.
Scientists have long debated how neural crest cells manage to finalize their destiny so much later than all other cell types.
Using the frog Xenopus as a model system, LaBonne and her colleagues performed a series of experiments that revealed the process and identified key genes that control it.
In this video, LaBonne describes the power of neural crest cells and how they can be useful for studies of human health, including how cancer cells can metastasize, or migrate, throughout the body.
Dr. LaBonne’s research is funded in part by NIGMS grant 5R01GM116538.