Developmental Biology

From the days of Aristotle, people have been fascinated by the transformation of a fertilized egg into a complex multi-cellular organism. Following birth, the organism continues to grow, regenerate cells, tissues and finally goes through aging. The field of developmental biology is focused on understanding the mechanisms that regulate early development, growth and aging of an organism.

Some basic questions that a developmental biologist asks are: how does a zygote know front from back, up from down and left from right? What makes a nerve cell different from a skin cell? How is an organ always formed in a particular location? Why do we age? Why do different animals grow to different sizes and have different life spans?

To address these fundamental questions, a developmental biologist uses model organisms such as sea urchins, fruit flies, worms and plants. Early understanding into this process (from 4 century B.C to early 18th century) was based on observations and experiments at a macroscopic level. Improvements in microscopy in the late 18th century allowed scientists to examine events such as fertilization, cell division and cell movements in great detail and gain further insights into this process. This is an exciting time for the field of developmental biology with advances in molecular biology and imaging as well as the availability of comparative genomic information for many species. In today’s scientific world, Developmental Biology has become integral to various fields of biology research – be it cell biology, cancer research or evolutionary biology.

At Saint Mary’s College, Developmental Biology is taught as one of the upper division courses. In addition, students are exposed to aspects of developmental biology in introductory biology, genetics, cell biology and immunology courses. The laboratories associated with these courses expose students to the techniques needed for research. In addition, Biology department has faculty engaged in research on organ formation in fruit flies and examining DNA methylation during cancer metastasis. Students can participate in these investigations during the academic year  as an independent study, during Jan term or during summer, as a full-time summer research project.