What is better than hearing why a scientist is studying what she or he is studying? To me, this personal aspect of science is my favorite. Because our faculty are indeed people, I am adding a new feature to my blog where I ask a faculty member each month: “Why?”. I ask them to describe their work in the context of their interests. We’ll start with our IGP director, Jim Patton. What does he find most interesting about his work?
-by James G. Patton, Ph.D.
Stevenson Professor of Biological Sciences, Director of the IGP
I am an RNA Biologist and the projects in my lab generally start from my fascination with the role that RNA plays in regulating gene expression. We have 4 ongoing projects. First, my lab seeks to understand how small microRNAs (miRNAs) control vertebrate development using zebrafish as a model organism. For example, loss of miR-27 results in fish being born normal but then unable to develop a jaw due to defects in chondrogenesis. Besides being a useful model of vertebrate development, an amazing property of zebrafish is that they can regenerate lots of damaged tissues including severed spinal cords, damaged hearts, and retinas. We can blind zebrafish yet they are able to regain eyesight in only about three weeks. Why can’t humans do this? Can we identify a mechanism to induce human retina regeneration? The third project studies a novel cell-cell communication system via extracellular RNA. This is a completely novel dogma shattering concept that RNA might be synthesized in one cell but then secreted and taken up by a second cell. We want to understand how RNAs get packaged into extracellular vesicles and how they move between donor and recipient cells with a focus on how such communication alters the tumor microenvironment and metastasis. Our last project merges our extracellular vesicle work and our regeneration studies to test whether exosomes derived from stem cells can induce a regenerative response in the retina, screening first in zebrafish and then testing in mice.