Abstract: Series 99, Lecture 7

The Harvey Lectures Series 99 (2003—2004)

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Lecture #7: Thursday, May 13, 2004 — Time and Location

The Neural Crest: A Cell Type That Defines Us as Vertebrates

Marianne Bronner-Fraser, PhD

Albert Billings Ruddock Professor of Biology
Division of Biology

California Institute of Technology

Pasadena, California

The bones in your face, the pigment in your skin, and the neural circuitry that controls your digestive tract all have one thing in common - they are derived from neural crest cells. These cells are unique to vertebrate embryos and represent a defining feature that separates vertebrates from invertebrates. During development, the nervous system comes from a cylindrical group of cells that would otherwise become skin. This cylindrical “neural tube” will generate the central nervous system, consisting of the brain and spinal cord, plus the neural crest. Neural crest cells start life within the central nervous system, but these cells subsequently migrate away. They are the great explorers of vertebrate embryos, striking off on their own to colonize the far reaches of the body. These wandering stem cells form, among other things, peripheral neurons, glia, connective tissue, bone, secretory cells and the outflow tract of the heart. The formation of these migratory stem cells poses an interesting developmental problem, as neural crest cells are not a distinct cell type until they migrate away from the central nervous system. We are interested in the interactions that lead to generation of neural crest cells, the properties of these cells once they have formed and why some of these cells become migratory. I will discuss the experimental and genomic approaches we are using to unravel the molecular and cellular signals by which this cell type arises and evolves.