Islets of youth  pg. 4

Colors hint at the “cell lineage” in the developing pancreatic tissue of a mid-gestational mouse embryo. Antibodies linked to fluorescent molecules that absorb and re-emit light of different wavelengths detect hormone-producing endocrine tissue (green), epithelial duct and associated progenitor cells (blue), or cells (red) that specifically express pancreas specific transcription factor-1a.
Image by Fong Cheng Pan, Ph.D., research fellow, Cell & Developmental Biology, Vanderbilt. 
Courtesy of Christopher V.E. Wright, D.Phil.
 
At the time, Wright was a freshly minted biochemist from Oxford University who had just joined the laboratory of pioneering developmental biologist Edward De Robertis, M.D., Ph.D., at UCLA.

“I had somehow a gut feeling that the homeobox genes were a huge breakthrough,” he recalls.

De Robertis set Wright to work on the frog Xenopus laevis. By 1988, they had discovered the first homeobox gene expressed exclusively in the endoderm.

The gene, eventually named pdx1, for pancreatic and duodenal homeobox factor 1, is essential for development of the pancreas – as well as for maintenance of the adult beta cell. The pdx1 gene encodes a protein, called a transcription factor, which turns on other genes.

Wright’s career was launched at a time when scientists were just learning the “language” of the cell. He came to Vanderbilt in 1990 to work with Brigid Hogan, Ph.D., now chair of Cell Biology at Duke University, who helped pioneer methods for introducing extra genetic material into mice embryos.

Another technique, gene targeting, enabled the Vanderbilt team – which by then included Magnuson, Roland Stein, Ph.D., and Patricia Labosky, Ph.D. -- to study what happens to the pancreas when pdx1 is “knocked out” of embryonic stem cells in the mouse.

Since then, Wright and his colleagues have continued to elaborate the role that pdx1 plays in pancreas development. Among their findings:

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