This project addresses a key unresolved issue in biology, which is how cells on the move such as migratory cells in embryos or metastatic cancer cells, make decisions about where to go and what type of cell to become. The research approaches this biological question through a novel combination of experiments in zebrafish embryos and mathematical models. The major benefits of the project to science include a better basic understanding of how cells make decisions about their fates as well as having clinical implications for birth defects and cancer. The broader societal impacts include student research training in both zebrafish and cell migration. This training is imparted mainly by involving graduate students in zebrafish development and genetics, and through summer programs that expose high school and college students to developmental biology concepts such as cell migration.

A major challenge in developmental biology is to understand complex systems of fate specification in migratory cells exposed to dynamic environments. This application exploits novel experimental tools such as single cell RNA sequencing in a transient population of migrating embryonic cells called the neural crest, as well as new computational methods for modeling spatial interactions between cells during migration. The integrated systems biology approaches applied uncover new mechanisms that control neural crest cell fate specification, including their transient interactions and transitional cell states. The results are directly relevant to basic developmental biology.

This award is co-funded by the Systems and Synthetic Biology cluster in the Division of Molecular and Cellular Biosciences, the Mathematical Biology program in the Division of Mathematical Sciences and the Neural Systems cluster in the Division of Integrative Organismal Systems.

This award reflects NSF's statutory mission and has been deemed worthy of support through evaluation using the Foundation's intellectual merit and broader impacts review criteria.

National Science Foundation (NSF)
Division of Molecular and Cellular Biosciences (MCB)
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David Rockcliffe
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University of California Irvine
United States
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