ALERT! The Texas Medical Center Incident Command team is preparing for Tropical Storm Cindy and its effects on the TMC campus and facilities. Click here for the latest updates and follow along on Twitter.
Research

Aryeh Warmflash wins NSF CAREER Award

Rice University professor studies bottom-up embryonic development using human stem cells


Aryeh Warmflash Aryeh Warmflash (Credit: Jeff Fitlow/Rice University)
By Mike Williams | December 21, 2015

Aryeh Warmflash, an assistant professor of biosciences at Rice University, has won a prestigious National Science Foundation CAREER Award to advance his study of human embryonic development.

The five-year grant worth $996,000 will help Warmflash and his students understand how and why the initially identical cells in an embryo differentiate into the hundreds of different cell types that make up the human body.

Scientists know these cells communicate with each other as their numbers grow, but have yet to understand the precise mechanisms of when, how and why that happens.

When he was a postdoctoral researcher at Rockefeller University in New York, Warmflash and his colleagues made custom assays to demonstrate how perfectly circular colonies of embryonic stem cells organize themselves into many different types. His Rice lab will now extend those experimental methods and mathematical models to discover how patterns of cells develop and how they relate to the ultimate formation of organs.

“We have patterns in 20 different shapes, and we’re looking at their fates,” Warmflash said. “Ultimately we hope to come up with a theoretical model to accurately predict the patterns we get from each shape and use that to better engineer things that look like the embryo.”

These patterns begin to form about two weeks into an embryo’s development, when cells begin gastrulation. Gastrulation is the process by which they differentiate into the three germ layers (the ectoderm, mesoderm and endoderm) that give rise to specific organs.

Because it’s impossible to study the development of embryonic cells in utero, the lab developed assays that constrain the growth of stem cell populations and the communities they become and cause the development of these stem cells to look like that of an embryo.

“Within the early embryo, there is a line of cells from the center to one side; that axis is called the primitive streak, and that’s where the process of gastrulation happens,” Warmflash said. “It’s a symmetry-breaking event that ends up making the anterior-posterior axis of the body.

“When we grow cell communities in circles, the patterns look like those of the embryo but are too symmetrical; instead of just getting a line, we get a ring with the symmetry of the circle. So one of the questions we’re trying to figure out is, how we can get it to break symmetry so it makes something that looks more like the line?”

When that is achieved, the lab will look at how spatial characteristics influence differentiation.

The lab is also interested in how single stem cells and communities of cells make decisions between different fates. “When we grow stem cells, we want to give them the right inputs to stay in that stem cell state, and when we want them to differentiate, we want to give them the right inputs to differentiate,” Warmflash said. “Single cells are actually quite poor at responding to those inputs. Some reasonable fraction will start to differentiate just on their own.

“But as we scale up to two, three, even four cells, that aggregate always decides together. Either all the cells will differentiate or they won’t. They do a much better job of interpreting the signals we give them. Now that we’ve seen this phenomenon, we want to know how it works,” he said.

“And when you get to a couple hundred cells, they don’t want to all become the same types. They want to make a pattern of different things along the axis of the colony. So there’s some transition where, above a certain colony size, you get enforcement of the same fate in territories but different fates along the axis. Below a certain size, the only effect is enforcement of a common fate.”

He said cells in larger colonies seem to understand how far they are from its edge, and that influences its decisions. “We want to learn how cells know they’re four or 10 cells from the boundary, and how that helps a cell decide, ‘OK, I’ve got to be something different.'”

Warmflash said results of the research will be shared through courses at Rice and outreach to K-12 students and through programs for teachers of Advanced Placement classes. Ultimately, courses will be offered through the online Coursera platform.

Warmflash joined Rice in 2014 on the back of a major recruitment grant from the Cancer Prevention and Research Institute of Texas. His lab’s study of the roots of ovarian cancer is proceeding along with his work on embryonic stem cells.

Tags | Research



Social Posts

profile_image

Edward Pekala

🌈 we all love you lyda hill see you at the parade

2 hours ago
profile_image

Rice University

@RiceUniversity

Rice University will be open for normal business operations today. See more: https://t.co/yilnV2MhOe

2 hours ago
profile_image

Houston Methodist

@MethodistHosp

@SciNode Thanks for sharing the info ^SF

8 hours ago
profile_image

Houston Methodist

@MethodistHosp

@alyxramir Thanks for the nice comment ^SF

8 hours ago
profile_image

Houston Methodist

@MethodistHosp

@UltraMexSeries Gracias por compartir la foto ^SF

8 hours ago
profile_image

BCMHouston

@bcmhouston

RT @HardeepSinghMD: Pleased to serve on #IJQHC global editorial team-publishing research, policy & implementation work on quality & health?

9 hours ago
profile_image

BCMHouston

@bcmhouston

RT @BCMHouston_News: .@TXMedCenter shares important storm preparation tips from @bcmhouston's @docpillow12 #Cindy https://t.co/4Kg3copHwS

9 hours ago
profile_image

Betty Wilson

The last 2 times i have gone to the er in league city the drs there mase me feel like they were blowing me of first time i went in because my stomach swelled up...

10 hours ago
profile_image

BCMHouston

@bcmhouston

.@HCOA_BCM's Dr. Angela Catic shares ways you can help prepare older adults for hurricane season.? https://t.co/DTUcWqhQ13

10 hours ago
profile_image

Baylor College of Medicine

BaylorCollegeOfMedicine

Huffington Center on Aging's Dr. Angela Catic shares ways you can help prepare older adults for hurricane season.

10 hours ago
profile_image

Veterans Affairs

@DeptVetAffairs

How to cure soldiers' invisible wounds https://t.co/3i7CJRM6d5 via @tennessean

12 hours ago
profile_image

MD Anderson

@MDAndersonNews

5 tips for coping w/ chemo & radiation side effects from a #breastcancer survivor, MD Anderson physician:? https://t.co/8rUFasUIFT

12 hours ago
profile_image

Baylor College of Medicine

BaylorCollegeOfMedicine

Congratulations to our Global Health Society student group, recognized as a Society of the Year by Unite For Sight!

13 hours ago
profile_image

Darlene Campbell

I just have to brag. Today my daughter Kaytelynn had open heart surgery with Dr. Carlos Mery. He is just wonderful! I was so nervous about today & all the staff...

13 hours ago
profile_image

Veterans Affairs

@DeptVetAffairs

Faced with a prediabetic diagnosis, a Louisiana Veteran sheds weight with VA?s MOVE! program https://t.co/ODl6r9riU2 via #VAntagePoint

13 hours ago