Joel H. Rothman

Discoveries reveal how to unlock a cell's destiny

Nov 6, 2012

The discovery was made in the laboratory of Joel H. Rothman, Professor and Wilcox Family Chair in Biotechnology in the Department of Molecular, Cellular, and Developmental Biology at UC Santa Barbara. The studies were reported in the interdisciplinary journal Genes and Development, and were carried out by Ph.D student Nareg Djabrayan, in collaboration with Rothman and two other members of the laboratory, Ph.D student Erica Sommermann and postdoctoral fellow Nathaniel Dudley.

"At some point along the way toward becoming part of a complete individual, cells become destined to choose a particular identity," Rothman noted. "Once a cell chooses who it will be, it locks onto that identity for the remainder of its life." A cell that is destined to become a heart cell functions exclusively in the heart until it dies, and never chooses later to change jobs by becoming, for example, a brain cell. " The researchers have found a way to unlock cells' destinies and lead them to take on a new identity.

The scientists found that a widely used cell signaling system, known as "Notch" signaling, causes cells to commit to a particular identity, such as a skin or brain cell. When they blocked the signal by genetic manipulation, the researchers discovered that they could force a cell to change its destiny, such that they instead became cells of the intestine. By unlocking a cell's normal destiny, it may be possible to change it into an altogether different type of cell that could be used to grow a new organ for a patient.

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