Intellectual Merit: Early in development, when embryos are composed of a simple ball of cells, some cells (animal blastomeres) receive information from the fertilized egg that will later direct them to form the nervous system. Very little is known about which molecules in the fertilized egg cause these cells to be more inclined than their neighbors to form neural tissue, a process which is called neural fate bias. The goals of this research project are to: 1) identify which molecules in animal blastomeres bias their descendant cells to form neural tissue; and 2) elucidate the molecular mechanism(s) by which these molecules act to accomplish neural fate bias. The project will utilize a novel system to culture animal blastomeres and assay their ability to produce neural tissue when exposed to molecules predicted to be involved in neural fate bias. The research will also test whether blastomeres that do not normally make neural tissue can be induced to do so by the molecules responsible for neural fate bias. Additional experiments will test whether these molecules instruct cells to express a neural fate by altering how embryonic cells respond to signaling within the embryo. Together, these experiments will enable discovery of novel molecules and novel mechanisms by which embryonic cells are instructed by the fertilized egg to form the nervous system.
Broader Impacts: This project will provide opportunities for scientific education and training at several levels. The experimental approaches will be taught to high school and undergraduate students, providing an outstanding learning experience for students interested in exploring a career in science. Under-represented high school students will be recruited from the Washington, DC public "School Without Walls" high school. Graduate level students will be trained in molecular biology, embryology, genomics, and bioinformatic approaches, providing an integrative, cutting edge research experience. Information collected in this project will be presented at local, regional, national and international meetings, including meetings specific for undergraduates, e.g., "Posters on the Hill" program. This will disseminate the research findings and will train students in public communication. This project will raise the scientific literacy of the general public, because members of the research team will organize hands-on presentations at local elementary and middle schools, and make presentations at upcoming Science and Engineering Festivals (SciFests), the next to be held in Washington, DC in April 2012.