Anna Di Gregorio Associate Professor of Cell and Developmental Biology



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Development and Evolutionary Origins of the Basic Chordate Body Plan

Our lab studies the gene regulatory networks underlying specification and correct development of chordate axial tissues.Particular efforts are focused on investigating development and differentiation of the notochord.The notochord is a distinctive feature of the chordate phylum and in vertebrates is the precursor of the backbone. During chordate embryogenesis, the notochord plays a crucial role in patterning the central nervous system, axial muscles, liver, pancreas, heart and gut , and in establishing left-right asymmetry. Animals with a notochord first appeared about 550 million years ago, at the time of the Cambrian explosion. Today, the most primitive living animals with a notochord are the urochordates (tunicates), which are marine invertebrate chordates. We study the evolutionary origins of the notochord and its flanking tissues in a urochordate, the ascidian Ciona intestinalis.

There are several good reasons for using Ciona intestinalis as an experimental system: the genome has been sequenced and is publicly available together with a wide collection of ESTs and expression data; the embryonic development is extremely fast, the embryos are transparent and are available almost year-round and transgenic experiments can be carried out in a surprisingly short amount of time.

We are currently analyzing a collection of minimal notochord-specific cis-regulatory modules, from Ciona intestinalis. We plan to use the cis-regulatory elements isolated from Ciona to reconstruct, using appropriate computational methods, the minimum genetic "blueprint" responsible for notochord formation in vertebrates. Our long-term goals include the characterization of the transcription factors controlling the representative notochord-specific cis-regulatory elements isolated so far and the identification of their transcriptional targets.

Keywords: ascidian, Ciona, notochord, muscle, CNS, chordate origins

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Primary Affiliation

  • Weill Cornell Medical College, Cornell University