Developmental Biology

Philip M. Iannaccone, MD, DPhil, George M. Eisenberg Professor
Senior Vice President, Deputy Director for Research-Basic Sciences, Program Director

Launched in 1995, the Developmental Biology program focuses on mechanisms of genetic fate in early human development. This team examines pattern formation, the process by which cells organize to form structures that develop into a normal body. Scientists are examining several key aspects of signal transduction, the method by which protein signals outside a cell cause changes in gene expression inside the cell nucleus. These signals are critical to normal development. Studying them allows scientists to uncover and understand the disturbance and disruptions in genes during development that may cause birth defects, cancer, and other childhood diseases.



Human brain tumor cells stained for the transcription factor GLI1 (green) and DNA (red). GLI1 co-localizes with the mitotic spindle.



The Developmental Biology team has made important advances in basic research on the GLI gene. Indeed, the early work conducted by CMRC researchers has helped scientists worldwide understand that GLI functions as a transcription factor, turning other genes on and off, and that mistakes in GLI cause disorders ranging from severe birth defects to childhood cancers. Research results describing the role of GLI deficiencies in human disease were recently published in the American Journal of Human Genetics and work on the role of GLI1 in the development of brain tumors continues.

The addition of five talented investigators to this program promises to accelerate the discovery of underlying causes of childhood diseases. For example, Sara Ahlgren, PhD, is examining the interactions between genes and the environment in causing certain kinds of birth defects of the head and face. These studies may ultimately lead to new treatments or prevention of craniofacial defects.

Research Goals

The Developmental Biology Program is devoted to understanding the genetic mechanisms that underlie pattern formation and cell fate specification during development. The areas of particular interest include signal transduction pathways, transcription factor networks, and morphogenetic movements. We utilize a variety of model systems, including newt, chick, zebrafish, mouse and rat. Embryo manipulation, imaging (including live cell imaging with multiphoton laser scanning microscopy), gene expression profiling, genomics, in situ hybridization and many other tools are applied to experiments that range from limb regeneration to genetic manipulation to cloning in pursuit of new knowledge.


In addition to mentoring undergraduate and graduate students, medical students, and postdoctoral and clinical fellows in the their labs, many of the Developmental Biology Program Faculty members also teach in the Integrated Graduate Program in Life Sciences at Northwestern University‚Äôs Feinberg School of Medicine.  

Research News

Discovering cancer's molecular switches- Dr. David O. Walterhouse