Primordial Kinship

NSF-funded research examines beautiful beginnings under microscopic lens

by MaryAlice Bitts-Jackson

The sea urchins in this laboratory were born in California, but based on appearances, they might have traveled from light years away. Spiny, spherical and suctioned to the sides of the fish tank via hundreds of tiny, transparent feet, they call to mind a distant planet, somewhere where horse chestnuts, pompoms and tiny porcupines might mate.

That is to say, they look nothing like humans—except to cell biologists like John Henson, Charles A. Dana Professor of Biology, and his students. At the cellular level, the sea urchins are very much like humans, in terms of fertilization and early-embryonic-cell divisions—much more so than, say, mice or rats. Studying them can help advance our understanding of how these fundamental biological processes work in terms of human development and disease.

Henson was recently awarded a $256,855, three-year National Science Foundation (NSF) grant to study the mechanisms underlying cell division in the early sea-urchin embryo—what happens, biologically, in those first few divisions, particularly how proteins like actin are regulated and how they allow cell division to occur. To do so, he and his student researchers will harvest sea urchins’ sperm and eggs—each female produces millions of eggs per cycle—and then fertilize the eggs and monitor the progress of cellular development under various conditions.

The grant is the latest of many honors, fellowships, publications and grant awards in Henson’s career, which includes research as a Foster Fellow Visiting Scholar for the U.S. Department of State. He teaches cell biology, immunology, histology and health-studies courses at Dickinson.

Working with a research partner at New Mexico State University, Henson and his student researchers have been performing preliminary research for several years in preparation for the current project, and he will bring a new crop of students into the lab this fall. After working on campus throughout the academic year, the student and faculty researchers will perform summer research at the Marine Biological Laboratory in Woods Hole, Mass. The grant also supports the development of a research-based course in sophisticated bioimaging techniques.

“I’m humbled and grateful to have been given this opportunity,” Henson says, “and I’ll work to impact as many students as possible.”

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Published July 30, 2014