How cells acquire their identity is a fundamental question in Developmental Biology and one that has gained additional importance in the era of stem cell biology. In order to harness the potential of adult stems cells, the genetic factors that give them their unique potential must be understood. This potential is intimately linked with their tissue of origin. In this project, the reproductive organs of the worm Caenorhabditis elegans are used as a model for defining the genetic determinants of organ identity. All somatic tissues of C. elegans reproductive organs derive from two somatic gonadal precursor cells (SGPs). The SGPs undergo a set of cell divisions to generate five mature tissues in the female organ or four mature tissues in the male organ. The potential to generate these particular cell types is imparted to the SGPs at their birth; their sister cells differentiate shortly after they are born. A combination of molecular, biochemical, and genetic experiments will be used to incorporate newly identified genes into a genetic model for organ identity and to identify critical early regulators of SGP identity.

The outcome of this work will be a more complete understanding of the genetic controls of organ identity and multipotency, which has the potential to impact significantly the basic understanding of all stem cells, including human stem cells. An integral part of this research project is the development of an advanced undergraduate genetics lab course that will introduce students to inquiry-based research. In addition, this project will provide training for future US scientists, in that several undergraduate students, two graduate students, and one postdoctoral fellow will be engaged in conducting the research in this project.

National Science Foundation (NSF)
Division of Integrative Organismal Systems (IOS)
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Matt Buechner
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Virginia Commonwealth University
United States
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