Monday, September 23, 2013

Through their lens: Dan Roman makes surprising connections between stem cell research and geology

This summer we're sponsoring high school interns in stem cell labs throughout California. We asked those students to contribute to our Instagram photos and YouTube videos about life in the lab, and write about their experiences.

In addition to carrying out a stem cell research project, the students were expected to carry out a secondary project relating their work to other areas of study.

Over the past six weeks, I have focused on performing the tasks and experiments needed to carry out my project. However, it has become evident that my project and stem cells have applications and similarities with many other domains that I never thought of.

My project involved the identification of new cell-cycle regulators in the nematode known as C. elegans. We knocked-down, or deactivated seven candidate genes in the C. elegans and observed the rate of mitotic division and chromosomal migration in the single-cell embryos of these worms. This gave us insight on the cell-cycle regulating function of these genes. Meanwhile, a colleague of mine focused his project around stromatolites, a type of fossil. By observing the patterns and arrangement of the different laminae, or layers, in these rocks, he was able to ascertain certain characteristics about life on Earth many million years ago, such as climate, lake history, volcanic activity and oxygen records.

My project this summer was closely related to stem cells. After knocking-down the seven candidate genes in the C. elegans, I observed the chromosomal segregation of its single-cell embryo. These embryonic cells are in fact stem cells as they have not yet gone through the process of differentiating into a more specific type of cell such as a blood or skin cell. The reason we chose to examine embryonic cells is because their chromosomes can be more easily observed through a microscope and we wanted to focus our research on somatic cells, or body cells. It was previously established that these seven candidate genes suppress germ cell proliferation and now we are trying to ascertain what their effect is on somatic cells. By doing so, we hoped to expand the known roles of these genes and identify new mitotic cell-cycle regulators.

As far as my colleague’s project goes, not all rocks, or stromatolites, give us insight into every aspect of life some 30 million years ago. The patterns of laminae on some rocks may allow us to better understand climate, for instance, while those on other rocks may serve to tell us about volcanic activity during those time periods. This strikes me as very relatable to the idea of stem cells. All cells are cells, even though they have different functions in organisms. Meanwhile, all rocks are rocks, even though they all tell us something different about life on Earth millions of years ago. Stem cells start out all the same. But then, as time goes on, they each differentiate into a very specific type of cell that has a very specific function in an organism. Meanwhile, rocks also start out the same. However, as time goes on, these rocks encounter different things and the different photosynthetic bacteria will produce different laminae on each rock that will give us insight into different aspects of ancient life.

Throughout this summer program, I have learned much about the function and scientific importance of stem cells. I knocked-down genes in C. elegans and observed the effects it had as their single-cell embryos went through their first divisions. These embryonic cells were in fact stem cells as they were not yet specialized. I was able to identify new genes that alter the mitotic division of these stem cells. In doing so, we can better hope to manipulate the rate at which these stem cells divide and hopefully better understand the mechanisms and genes involved as organisms transition from a simple single-cell to the complex beings that they grow to beome.

Dan Roman

Dan sent us this video of his experience:

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