Exploring gene networks provides insight into stem cell behaviour

12 Aug 2014
AIBN's PhD student Elizabeth Mason
AIBN's PhD student Elizabeth Mason

An international, interdisciplinary research team involving The University of Queensland (UQ) has identified specific networks of genes that regulate stem cell behaviour and may aid in controlling stem cell fate. A paper outlining their findings has been published in Stem Cell Reports with Australian Institute for Bioengineering and Nanotechnology’s (AIBN) PhD student Elizabeth 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 Elizabeth Mason’s imagination. 

Since mid 2010, Elizabeth 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 predictable 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, Elizabeth has worked closely with several senior colleagues. Expertise in stem cell biology was provided by AIBN colleague Associate Professor Ernst Wolvetang and Australian colleagues – Dr Andrew Laslett (CSIRO) and Professor Martin Pera (The University of Melbourne) – as well as statistical and computational support from international collaborators Professor John Quackenbush and Dr Jessica Mar. Overall stewardship of the project was provided by Associate Professor Christine Wells from UQ’s AIBN and The University of Glasgow.

During her studies, Elizabeth has spent time at Harvard University and at The Albert Einstein College of Medicine in New York. She has an appointment with Professor Pera at The University of Melbourne,  and is jointly completing her PhD studies at the AIBN at The University of Queensland.

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

The Australian researchers are members of Stem Cells Australia (an Australian Research Council funded Special Initiative in Stem Cell Science).

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