When embryos develop, cells are often born in one location but required at another. Scientists are searching for the molecular mechanisms that govern the critical decision of a cell to move or stay in place. Dr. Starz-Gaiano and others have uncovered a pivotal role for a molecular cascade, called the Signal Transducer and Activator of Transcription (STAT) pathway, in determining whether a cell will become motile. This pathway is also essential for some cells to remain as stem cells instead of developing into another kind of cell. Dr. Starz-Gaiano's laboratory will use genetic, molecular, and mathematical approaches to understand how STAT signaling controls these cellular events. Fruit flies will be used in these studies because they have several advantages: rapid development, a small and well-characterized genome, many genetic methods, and transparent tissues that enable visualization of cells as they move. Dr. Starz-Gaiano expects to discover the mechanism by which STAT signaling is turned off in select cells, to identify the critical molecules that STAT employs to change the adhesiveness of cells, and to compare the properties of motile cells to those required for stem cell maintenance.

Unlocking the molecular mysteries of cellular decision-making is essential in understanding normal development, birth defects, and disease progression. Because over 80% of fruit fly genes are also found in humans, the molecular mechanisms identified in this project will likely be broadly applicable. This research will impact the fields of molecular signaling, cell motility, stem cell biology, and mathematical modeling of natural phenomena. The projects are also well-positioned to enhance education through interdisciplinary partnerships and will leverage UMBC's nationally-recognized programs that increase involvement of underrepresented students in science. Thus, the proposed activities will integrate widely relevant, interdisciplinary research with simultaneous, outstanding education for the next generation of citizens and potential scientists.

National Science Foundation (NSF)
Division of Integrative Organismal Systems (IOS)
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Matt Buechner
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University of Maryland Baltimore County
United States
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