In its earliest stages of development, the embryo consists of a small number of cells. As these cells divide and multiply, the embryo grows. But how do the lungs, heart, and other organs, so striking in their architectural waltz of form and function, develop? How do certain cells develop into muscle tissue while others "choose" to become nerve or blood cells?
Apparently, the cells make these fateful decisions through "conversations" held when they meet during the cell differentiation process. Before this "fateful date," the embryonic cells just aren't mature enough to decide their own future; after it, cells that have not met with or have failed to communicate with other cells - die. Only those that have properly communicated with their fellow cells will continue to differentiate.
Prof. Talila Volk of the Molecular Genetics Department in the Weizmann Institute of Science has discovered that this basic process is "overseen" by a unique protein that functions as a sort of two-way "switch," determining which of the cells will continue to differentiate and which will die. This protein "switch" is found in one of two positions: in one, it encourages the cell to undergo differentiation; in the other, it reduces the cell's "ambition" to differentiate, limiting its chances for survival.
From fruit flies to mammals, Volk's discovery appears to be a basic mechanism of life, various versions of which can be found across the evolutionary ladder. Her work could greatly advance our knowledge regarding embryonic development and may some day even enable its control.
Prof. Talila Volk's research is supported by the Leo and Julia Forchheimer Center for Molecular Genetics and the Minerva Stiftung Gesellschaft fur die Forschung m.b.H.
"I grew up on Kibbutz Gvulot in the Negev. As a young girl I was drawn to chemistry, but only when I reached university did I feel that I had found my path in life."