Research NewsDevelopmental Biology

Smart Genes Use Many Cues to Set Cell Fate

Science  03 May 1996:
Vol. 272, Issue 5262, pp. 652-653
DOI: 10.1126/science.272.5262.652


Undifferentiated cells in an early embryo may be like an orchestra without a leader, depending on the biochemical music of their neighbors—secreted regulatory factors—for cues about whether to play the part of a muscle cell, for instance, or a neuron. Yet there hasn't been much evidence that genes in these cells are “smart” enough to pick up the multitude of nuanced biochemical notes surrounding them. Now, however, researchers have found a sophisticated biochemical ear in a sea urchin gene. The gene's “on-off switches” and “volume controls” consist of seven modules, or collections of binding sites, that respond to 13 different regulatory factors. Various combinations of modules can be put together to change the time and place of the gene's activation, and hence the cell's fate