Q & A with Veronica Hinman, Assistant Professor in the Department of Biological Sciences
What can we learn by studying how animals develop at a genetic level?
One of the most intriguing problems in biology is to understand the processes that have generated the great diversity of animal forms found today. Conversely, what constrains these forms to a limited set of types considering all that could be? One of the obvious starting points is to first understand how animals take on their form during embryonic development. This is in itself a fundamentally interesting question in biology. Perhaps the best way to fully understand development is to construct gene regulatory network (GRN) models.
What are gene regulatory networks? What are GRN models?
GRNs are groups of molecules that control which genes get "turned on" and which get "turned off." The GRN can be considered the link between the genotype and the phenotype. Models of GRNs attempt to explain development as a consequence of this genetic control. GRNs follow the flow of regulatory information through time and in different cells in the embryo.
Once we understand, in a very precise way, how a number of different species develop, we are in an excellent position to understand what animals do differently or in the same way. We can then look at how these differences and similarities cause the animals themselves to be different morphologically.
What are the major implications of your work with GRNs?
During my postdoctoral research I was able to find features of GRNs that have been conserved through hundreds of millions of years. In fact, these features have been conserved since the late Cambrian period more than 500 million years ago. This suggests that some particular architectural features of GRNs are so essential to development that they are immutable. I have also been able to show how changes in GRN connections lead to differences between organisms.
Are you studying GRNs in a specific organism?
I am using a variety of marine invertebrates, particularly echinoderms, for this research. The most extensive GRN currently exists for the sea urchin embryo (see http://sugp.caltech.edu/endomes/), and the starfish is an excellent comparative model. Also marine invertebrates represent the largest morphological diversity on the planet and present a wealth of opportunity to explore the association between development and evolution.
Will studying invertebrate GRNs be relevant to vertebrate GRNs?
Much of what will be discovered in invertebrates will reflect principles of GRN processes in development, which will increase our general understanding of how a hard-wired genome produces an animal. The specifics of vertebrate versus invertebrate development will be very interesting from an evolutionary perspective. Vertebrates certainly reflect a greater degree of complexity in form, and it will be fascinating to understand the genomic processes that have facilitated this transition. If we find that particular features of GRNs are conserved among invertebrates and vertebrates, it would point to some process that happened deep in evolutionary time that perhaps defines what it means to be an animal.
Will you be collaborating with anyone here at Carnegie Mellon?
Since my research tends to transcend traditional fields I was particularly happy to find somewhere that fostered collaboration and did not have inhibiting departmental boundaries. Hopefully, I will be able to work with one of the many people here who has interests in gene networks, cis-regulatory control, evolution and development, either with a theoretical, computational or experimental emphasis. I can also see the potential for exchange of new technologies, which may come from people in unrelated fields.