Events that occur in the earliest stages of human development can affect our health for the rest of our lives. Because of practical and ethical limitations, it has been very difficult to study early human development, and we have had to rely on information from other animals such as mice. In my research, I will use new technologies and cell lines to study steps in early human development.
I am working on two main projects. First we will study "DNA methylation": a chemical modification of DNA that determines which genes are activated or inactivated in later development. We will study how the enzyme that makes DNA methylation is itself activated during early human development, so that the correct pattern of DNA methylation is established in the first days of life. DNA methylation is important for the embryo's survival, and subtle changes in the pattern of DNA methylation can affect health and behavior, so this is an important and medically relevant problem.
Second, I will study the development of the placenta. The placenta is essential to provide nutrients to the embryo and guide the course of pregnancy. Defects in placentation can lead to miscarriage, premature birth, developmental abnormalities, or pre-eclampsia. Using placental stem cells, I will determine which genes are important for the formation of the various cell types that make up the placenta, and what abnormalities occur when these genes are lost. This will help us understand how placental development can go wrong, and how changing the expression of key genes could potentially rescue defective placental development.
Our work will improve our understanding of some of the least understood steps of human development.