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Exploring gene networks provides insight into stem cell behaviour

01 August 2014
Lizzi’s sophisticated join the dots reveals gene networks

An international, interdisciplinary research team has identified specific networks of genes that regulate stem cell behavior and may aid in controlling stem cell fate. A paper outlining their findings has been published in Stem Cell Reports with PhD student Lizzi Mason as lead author.

Pluripotent stem cells have the remarkable capacity to grow into all of the different cells of the body. These cells can also be grown in the laboratory in a primitive undifferentiated state. While extremely valuable for research, controlling this incredible regenerative capacity is not straightforward. 

It was the quest to identify and develop new ways to predict how stem cells will behave that has captured PhD student Lizzi Mason’s imagination. Since mid 2010, Lizzi has been using gene expression patterns to build networks which model the differences in behaviour of stem cells.  This provides insight into understanding why some stem cells have a stronger regenerative capacity than others, and why some stem cells have less predictible behaviour than others.

The project was inspired by a meeting she and colleagues attended at the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study at Harvard University, concerning genetic variability in biological populations.

To fully explore variability in stem cell populations, Lizzi has worked closely with several senior colleagues. Expertise in stem cell biology was provided by Stem Cells Australia colleagues - Ernst Wolvetang, Andrew Laslett and Martin Pera – as well as statistical and computational support from international collaborators John Quackenbush and Jessica Mar. Overall stewardship of the project was provided by Christine Wells from The University of Queensland and University of Glasgow.

During her studies, Lizzi has spent time at Harvard University and at The Albert Einstein College of Medicine in New York. She has recently relocated from the Australian Institute for Bioengineering and Nanotechnology in Brisbane to The University of Melbourne where she plans to complete her PhD studies.

Congratulations Lizzi and the team on their discovery and providing a graphic illustration about the power of coupling computational science with basic biology.

For more information on the science read: Mason et al. (2014) Gene Expression Variability as a Unifying Element of the Pluripotency Network Stem Cell Reports http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.stemcr.2014.06.008