Developmental biology aims at describing and understanding the complex and highly connected regulatory pathways that determine the pattern and form of the embryo and later establish its organ systems. It integrates many disciplines including molecular biology, genetics, morphology, and the study of signal transduction pathways and regulation of gene expression. The complexity and multidisciplinarity of this field, the simultaneous need for more than one model organism, and the use of ever improving technologies, require a dense context of know-how, which in the US, UK and Germany, is often available within one institute. As an alternative, we propose here a strong collaborative interaction between young teams from different Belgian universities to strengthen their work in the field of developmental biology and to try to remain competitive at an international level. Furthermore, the network will develop strong interactions with the EMBL in Heidelberg (The Developmental Biology Program) not only at the technical level (access to sophisticated equipment) but also at the conceptual level (meetings, visits of scientists, collaborations on specific questions).
The aims of this research program are:
1) To explore the mechanisms involved in the development of selected tissues and organs. We will focus on the formation and patterning of the three germ layers during gastrulation, on the development of the central nervous system (CNS) and on the organogenesis of the pancreas and pituitary.
2) To investigate the role of particular transcription factors (homeobox, zinc finger, helix-loop helix factors) and signalling pathways and modulators thereof (TGFb, Wnt, Eph/ephrin and proteoglycans) in the development of these tissues and organs.
3) To explore the genetic and/or molecular interactions, be they synergistic or antagonistic, between the different signalling pathways and their signal transduction components (including transcription factors).
4) To ensure access for each participant to three vertebrate animal model systems, i.e. zebrafish, frog (Xenopus) and mouse, each providing specific experimental advantages. In addition, interaction with the EMBL will give access to the well-studied invertebrate Drosophila system.
5) To exchange and transfer technology and know-how between the different groups, which have complementary expertise in various techniques.
The progress in developmental biology in recent years has been remarkable. The identification and functional characterisation of novel genes that are essential for normal development are proceeding at a very fast pace. Comparison between the genomes of C. elegans, Drosophila and man shows conservation of many regulatory genes and signalling pathways components and has led to the identification of a great number of genes. The challenge is now is to decipher the function and the mechanism of action of all these genes during embryogenesis and in the adult. It is clear that developmental biology will have a profound impact in the next decade notably on medicine with the potential of developing effective new therapies, such as tissue regeneration and production from stem cells of specific human cell types for transplantation. We expect that, by generating new basic information, the present project will contribute significantly to that goal.