Over the past years biologists learned that the same genes or gene families direct the development of many comparable structures throughout the animal kingdom, from flies to mice to humans. Moreover, genes that direct the formation of one aspect of development – the shaping of limbs for instance – can also play a role in something as different as the formation of the cardiovascular system. Because limbs are simpler as compared to the whole body, they became an ideal model system for developmental biologists to study the emergence of biological organization, or pattern formation. Besides providing new insights on how three-dimensional structures form, such studies help to understand how and why proper embryonic development can go wrong, resulting in birth defects. In addition, genes known to affect developmental processes can be involved in the formation of certain forms of cancer, and their study is important for the development of future therapies.
Understanding human development requires experimental approaches to unravel the molecular principles that underlie the formation of the vertebrate embryo. To this end, my laboratory is using three complementing experimental model systems: 1) the chick, which allows manipulations of the embryo in ovo; 2) the zebrafish, which because of rapid reproduction time, small and transparent embryos facilitates studies on the genetic, cell, and molecular level; 3) the mouse, because of superior technologies available for genetic manipulation; and 4) the newt, which in contrast to higher vertebrates, can regenerate several organs and tissues including the limbs and heart ventricle throughout its lifetime. In comparing development and regeneration we want to learn how organs like the limbs and heart form during embryogenesis, but also how certain animal species manage to re-build lost structures as adults.