Cells move and divide, tissues develop, and organs form all as part of a highly orchestrated dance to achieve life. But how does a cell know whether it should stay where it is or move to a different location? How does a cell transform itself to become a skin cell or a fat cell or a blood cell?
The answer, at least in part, appears to be: crowdsourcing. A recent study by GW researcher Weiqun Peng finds that, in the case of developing fat and muscle cells, one type of protein can steer the regulation of thousands of genes by recruiting other molecules to help.
In most cells, the tiny nucleus contains full copies of every gene in a genome. In humans, for instance, almost every cell in the body contains each of our species’ 20,000 or so genes. Controlling gene expression—that is, whether a gene is on or off—is vital; the identity of each cell depends on the combination of genes that are turned on and off as the cell develops. Genes that are over- or under-expressed can result in stunted growth or development, or diseases such as cancer and diabetes.
It’s a sophisticated control system, with many different factors and signals regulating when and where genes are expressed. Similar to crowdsourcing, the outcome often depends on the factors that are found at a specific place and time.