Nature’s operating system – an essay by Christopher V.E. Wright, D.Phil.  pg. 2

This fundamental principle is now, however, relatively well established.

A section through the eye of a 4-day-old zebrafish larva shows cell nuclei stained blue and neurons labeled green.
Epifluorescence microscopy image by Robert Taylor, graduate student in the Vanderbilt Department of Biological Sciences, courtesy of Josh Gamse, Ph.D.
Organisms seem to become more sophisticated by developing new combinations of a basic toolkit of molecules and mechanistic subroutines that control cell formation and interactions. New versions of proteins can arise via the duplication of parts of chromosomes carrying certain developmental control genes, with the protein’s sequence and properties then diverging (mutating) slightly. In addition, the gene control sequences that dictate timing and location of protein production can be modified to produce new functions.

Elegant mechanisms

In its beginning, developmental biology was founded upon precise and rigorous descriptive work, a scholarly tradition that lingers to this day. The now-classic experimental embryology of the early 20th century was conducted by a small “club” of the well-to-do who could finance their own inquiries. These pioneering scientists used genetics or direct manipulation to find out how tissues interact to produce the different parts of the embryo.

Today’s science, while remaining grounded in precise “descriptology,” is more egalitarian, thanks largely to government support. We also have moved into a period where genetics is combined with the most modern biochemical and cell biological methods. Over the last two decades, we have gained the power to assess directly, and in the actual developing tissue, which genes (and even which exact region of their DNA) are being bound to and activated by the development-regulating proteins. I predict that we will soon have amazing multiplex renditions of such information for hundreds of proteins at the same time.

The accomplishments and contributions of developmental biology are easy to recognize in reviewing the list of Nobel laureates in medicine: from the fruit fly geneticist Thomas Morgan (1933) and amphibian embryologist Hans Spemann (1935), to Barbara McClintock, recognized for her work on mobile genetic elements in maize (1983), and Edward Lewis, Christiane Nusslein-Volhard and Eric Wieschaus (see article on E.W. in this Lens), for the genetics of fruit fly embryogenesis (1995).

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