Probing C. elegans development, cellular differentiation, and parasitic disease
Nestled in the redwoods of the stunning UC Santa Cruz campus, we are interested in how the remarkable complexity and noise of gene regulation is converted into the beautiful and precise cellular behaviors that drive animal development. We use genetics, molecular biology, microscopy, in vitro biochemistry, and genomics to study how individual, evolutionarily conserved transcription factors regulate distinct gene expression programs controlling cell division and differentiation and organ development in living animals. We focus on transcription factor regulation of three cellular processes: i) the nematode molt, which is the shedding of the old skin (cuticle); ii) sperm formation, and iii) generation of a new one; development of the nematode vulva, which is a paradigm of organogenesis. By extending our findings into the human parasitic nematode Brugia malayi, which causes the disfiguring disease lymphatic filariasis, we aim to understand how gene regulatory networks evolve in the context of a parasitic life cycle. We are motivated by the public health implications of this work: parasitic nematodes infect over 1.5 billion people globally and also threaten food availability by infecting crops and livestock. There are a small number of drugs currently available to fight parasitic nematode infections, so novel approaches are desperately needed. Molting is a good target as it is essential, involves nematode-specific molecules, and is regulated by many druggable targets (proteases, nuclear hormone receptors, etc.). By characterizing key developmental processes in parasites, we aim to develop new approaches to combat helminthic infections.