An embryo—be it human, frog, or even plant—begins as a single cell that eventually gives rise to the trillions of cells that make up the adult body. During this process, cells regulate their growth so that they travel to the correct location in the body and become the correct cell type (an eye cell versus a heart cell for example). Even a simple mistake during development can be catastrophic: If the cells in your right arm divided an extra time, it would be twice as long as your left arm.
My research describes how cells communicate with each other as the embryo grows. In particular, I focused on the nascent face which is especially complicated since it contains multiple tissue types and sensory organs. With the help of my labmates, I've shown that the very tip of the face, what we call the Extreme Anterior Domain (EAD), is critical for face development. During the earliest phase of development, the EAD secretes signaling molecules which guide cells to their proper location and controls how quickly they divide.
The face is a large part of our identity and our portal to the world. Craniofacial defects, like cleft palate, occur in one out of every seven hundred live births and are the most common birth defect. Further understanding of the EAD and other aspects of early face development could lead to new treatments, such as in utero surgery, to correct craniofacial defects.
(For more information, watch this short NOVA feature)