Rising up in Brazil, Marcos Simões-Costa typically visited his grandparents’ farm within the Amazon. That immersion in nature — squawking toucans and all — sparked his fascination with science and evolution. However a video of a growing embryo, proven in his center faculty science class, cemented his want to grow to be a developmental biologist.
“It’s such a ravishing course of,” he says. “I used to be all the time into drawing and artwork, and it was very visible — the shapes of the embryo altering, the truth that you begin with one cell and the complexity is growing. I simply received misplaced in that video.”
At present, Simões-Costa, of Harvard Medical College and Boston Youngsters’s Hospital, is honoring his youthful self by demystifying how the embryo develops. He research the embryos and stem cells of birds and mice to find out how networks of genes and the weather that management them affect the identification of cells. The work may result in new remedies for numerous illnesses, together with most cancers.
“The embryo is our greatest instructor,” he says.
Simões-Costa focuses on the embryo’s neural crest cells, a inhabitants of stem cells that type within the growing central nervous system. The cells migrate to different elements of the embryo and provides rise to many various cell varieties, from the bone cells of the face to muscle cells to mind and nerve cells.
Scientists have puzzled for years why, regardless of being so comparable, neural crest cells within the cranial area of the embryo can type bone and cartilage, whereas these within the trunk area can’t type both. Whereas a postdoc at Caltech, Simões-Costa studied the cascade of molecules that govern how genes are expressed in every cell kind. Together with his adviser, developmental biologist Marianne Bronner, he recognized transcription elements — proteins that may flip genes on and off — that had been current solely in cranial cells. Transplanting the genes for these proteins into trunk cells endowed the cells with the power to create cartilage and bone.
Now in his personal lab, he continues to piece collectively simply how this huge regulatory community influences the specialization of cells. His crew reconstructed how neural crest cells’ full set of genetic directions, or the genome, folds right into a compact, 3-D form. The researchers recognized quick DNA sequences, referred to as enhancers, which are positioned in faraway areas of the genome, however find yourself near key genes when the genome folds. These enhancers work with transcription elements and different regulatory components to manage gene exercise.
Simões-Costa can be utilizing neural crest cells to elucidate an odd habits shared by most cancers cells and a few embryonic cells. These cells produce vitality anaerobically, with out oxygen, even when oxygen is current. Referred to as the Warburg impact, this metabolic course of has been studied extensively in most cancers cells, however its perform remained unclear.
Via experiments manipulating the metabolism of neural crest cells, Simões-Costa’s crew discovered that the Warburg impact is critical for the cells to maneuver round throughout early improvement. The mechanism, which ought to keep turned off in nonembryonic cells, by some means “will get reactivated in grownup cells within the context of most cancers, main these cells to grow to be extra migratory and extra invasive,” Simões-Costa says.
“He’s one of many few individuals who’s actually checked out [this process in neural crest cells] at a molecular stage and finished a deep dive into the mechanisms underlying it,” says Bronner.
Cleverly combining classical embryological strategies with the most recent genomic applied sciences to handle elementary questions in developmental biology is what makes Simões-Costa particular, says Kelly Liu, a developmental biologist at Cornell College. He needs to grasp not solely what particular person genes do, however how they work at a techniques stage, she says.
How does the genetic blueprint inform cells the place they’re within the embryo, and what they need to be doing? How do most cancers cells hijack the Warburg impact, and will understanding of that course of result in new remedies? These are among the questions Simões-Costa needs to deal with subsequent.
“It’s been 20 years for the reason that Human Genome Venture got here to a conclusion,” he says, referring to the huge effort to learn the human genetic instruction e-book. “However there’s nonetheless a lot thriller within the genetic code.”
These mysteries, plus a deep ardour for lab work, gasoline Simões-Costa’s analysis. “Being on the bench is after I’m the happiest,” he says. He likens the fragile craft of performing exact surgical procedures on tissues and cells to meditation. “It doesn’t get outdated.”
Wish to nominate somebody for the following SN 10 checklist? Ship their title, affiliation and some sentences about them and their work to email@example.com.