The formation and physiology of organs is one of the fundamental mysteries of biology: how do pluripotent cells become committed to an organ? How is the development of organ precursors coordinated in space and time? And how does an organ respond to changing environmental conditions throughout the life of an animal? Although regulators of organ development and function have been identified, the mechanisms by which they orchestrate the molecular and cellular events of organogenesis are still unclear.
The Mango lab studies organ development and physiology using a simple organ, the C. elegans pharynx (or foregut), which nonetheless faces the same hurdles that confront organs in more complex animals. We have probed the earliest stages of organogenesis, when embryonic cells lose developmental plasticity and acquire pharyngeal fate. Our work has revealed that there are ‘organ identity’ genes that specify organ fate regardless of the cell types within the organ (e.g. pharyngeal muscle, pharyngeal nerve etc.). More recently, we have extended our studies to probe how C. elegans worms sense and respond to food availability. Our studies show that developmental processes in the embryo are modulated by the environment experienced by the parent. We are fascinated by this observation, which suggests embryogenesis is sensitive to trans-generational signaling.