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In order to generate a multicellular organism from a single cell, a series of complex and coordinated cell movements are necessary. Collectively, these morphogenetic movements change the shape and form of differentiating tissues, and underlie many crucial processes during development like gastrulation, the closure of the neural tube, and the migration of neural crest cells. Understanding these processes is relevant to human disease since failure results in severe birth defects like spina bifida and cleft palate.
In our group, we are investigating the signaling mechanisms that guide morphogenetic cell movements, using the frog Xenopus laevis as our developmental organism of choice. In contrast to the classical mouse system, large amounts of embryos can be obtained and their development can be easily observed in a Petri dish. In addition to gain- and loss-of-function analyses, we employ transplantation- and explant-assays to dissect the roles of different signaling molecules in the movement of specific tissues or cell populations. Currently, we are using these assays to characterize the signaling mechanisms that direct neural tube closure and neural crest migration. Our research has implicated two new molecules in these processes: PTK7 (protein tyrosine kinase 7), a new regulator of the planar cell polarity pathway, and NF-AT (nuclear factor of activated T cells). Characterizing the function of these molecules will help us to elucidate the signaling pathways guiding morphogenetic movements and get us one step closer to understanding the cause of severe human birth defects.