Nature’s operating system – an essay by Christopher V.E. Wright, D.Phil.

Christopher V.E. Wright, D.Phil.
Director, Vanderbilt University Program in Developmental Biology
Professor, Department of Cell & Developmental Biology
Molecular Diabetes Research Professor
Published: August, 2008

Christopher V.E. Wright, D.Phil.
Photo by Dean Dixon
What is developmental biology? With respect to human health, why are we so excited about findings being made under this discipline’s umbrella, sometimes in model organisms as lowly as tiny worms and fruit flies?

Developmental biology encompasses studies of all organisms, plant and animal, large or small, and whether they are composed of a single cell, clusters or billions of cells. Although focusing largely on early development, embryogenesis and organ formation, in its broadest interpretation the field covers the entire life cycle, including aging and death.

In our modern molecular era, developmental biologists use any analytical technique they can lay their hands on to get a better understanding of the various building blocks and assembly instructions for life: How oocytes and eggs form, how fertilization creates the zygote, and then how embryos in each species develop the right shape with organs all correctly placed.

This remarkably high-fidelity process uses genetic programming to ensure that each organ develops the proper proportions of cell types with complex interconnections to allow physiological function over what, in humans, can be almost a century of activity.

One day we hope to hold in our hands a comprehensive, minutely detailed catalog of how thousands of molecules, in multitudinous interactions, create neurons or insulin-producing cells. This molecular blueprint is the cell’s version of the operating system of the most complicated computer ever built.

This exciting undertaking is of course daunting, even more so because the biological operating system invented by nature is very flexible and versatile. We will need to learn how it changes according to the stage of developmental process, and at a grander level, how it drives evolution. Furthermore, cells are always extremely busy communicating with each other throughout embryonic development and organogenesis, and it is really critical to connect these interactions to the nuclear activity going on in each cell.

By trying to understand how normal development occurs, we also can find out a lot about what can go wrong, with potential for future therapies for congenital disorders, autoimmunity diseases, aging and even cancer. A wide range of animals and organs, and topics, are covered in this issue of Lens.

Previous to this current age of completed genome sequences, and before “developmental control genes” had even been found, it was to some people bordering on silly to suggest that organisms all the way from nematode worms and insects, through amphibians, birds and mammals would use basically the same kinds of genes to guide embryogenesis and organogenesis.

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