FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE
HUNTINGTON, W.Va. – An associate professor of biological sciences at Marshall University has been awarded a three-year grant from the National Science Foundation (NSF) to study the role of genes in controlling animal development.
Dr. Simon Collier’s grant is from the NSF’s Developmental Systems Program. He will use the $418,000 award to study the genetic control of the basic developmental processes of the fruit fly (Drosophila). Drosophila genetics has been studied for more than 100 years because the organism has many genes and genetic pathways similar to humans.
Collier’s research, formally titled “Polarizing A Cell Layer Along Two Axes,” has medical significance for the professor, who has a joint appointment in biochemistry and microbiology at the College of Science and the Joan C. Edwards School of Medicine at Marshall University. He will be studying the genetic control of planar cell polarity – the way cells face within a cell layer.
“Imagine a cell layer like a crowd of people. Usually the cells face in a common direction like a crowd at a concert. We study the genetic mechanisms that align cells in a common direction,” Collier explained. “Recently some cases of familial spina bifida (a failure of neural tube closure) have been shown to be due to mutations in a gene first identified as a ‘planar cell polarity gene’ in the fruit fly. Neural tube closure requires the movement of a cell layer in a specific direction to cover the neural tube. It appears that cells need to be facing in a common direction for the cell layer to move in the right direction.”
Collier’s research was funded on first submission to the NSF. His lab is considered a pioneer in this research area.
“In previous studies, researchers have looked at how cells are aligned in a single direction, along one axis of the cell layer. My research is beginning to help us understand how cells can be aligned along two axes, in two dimensions,” Collier said.
The correct control of planar cell polarity is also vital for many other developmental events in humans including formation of the gut, elongation of the body axis, axon guidance, neural crest migration, cardiovascular development, kidney development (loss of planar cell polarity produces polycystic kidneys), eye lens morphology and patterning of the inner ear and skin.
Collier came to Marshall University in 2003. He earned his Ph.D. in medical genetics from the University of Manchester in the United Kingdom, did postdoctoral research in developmental genetics at both the University of Cambridge in the United Kingdom and the University of Virginia, and served as a guest lecturer in biological sciences at the University of Manchester.
His research start-up at Marshall University was funded by West Virginia’s Experimental Program to Stimulate Competitive Research (EPSCoR), a National Science Foundation program that coordinates scientific research grants to academic institutions from federal and state agencies.