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A lay summary of our research

From the moment of our conception and throughout our development, our cells undergo millions of cycles of division to ultimately generate our bodies, including our bones, heart, brain and other components. Moreover, within our adult bodies, every day about two trillion cells divide to regenerate the cells that make up our skin, our blood and our intestine.

A movie of a C. elegans embryo as it undergoes cell division.

It is imperative that cells only divide at the right time and the right place. For this, cells receive a multitude of “signals” that either encourage them to divide or tell them to pause because they are not ready to do so. These signals can come from outside, such as their own neighbor cells, or from the inside, like their own nutritional status. Once a cell evaluates these signals, it can make an informed decision as to whether to divide or pause. However, if cells fail to heed their signals, it can have catastrophic consequences. On one hand, if cells pause for too long, it will result in developmental abnormalities. On the other hand, if cells do not pause and divide without control, it will result in cancer.

In our lab we investigate how cells integrate these multiple conflicting signals, how they decide to pause and how they can come out of this pause to continue dividing.

A C. elegans plate under a fluorescence stereo microscope

For many of our studies we use a tiny, microscopic worm called C. elegans. These worms live in the soil and in compost, but are easy to grow in the laboratory.

Why use a worm to study how our cells divide? As it turns out, worms and humans are more similar than one would expect. Indeed, we share many of the genes that participate in cell division. And because we can easily manipulate worms (for instance, by labeling them with fluorescent markers), everything that we learn by watching their cells divide can be applied to our own cells.

Fluorescent worms under the microscope