Patterns and molecular and biological development.

Nathan Goehring is a Junior Group Leader of the Polarity and Patterning Networks Laboratory at the Francis Crick Institute and a Senior Research Associate in the Medical Research Council Laboratory of Molecular Cell Biology at UCL. He worked alongside young filmmakers from 1A Arts for the ‘Deconstructing Patterns’ exhibition. The result is a wonderfully surreal fictional narrative created by the students, which offers a metaphor for the lab’s research into the first appearance of asymmetry in the nematode worm ‘Caenorhabditis Elegans’.

Richard Bright: Can we begin by you saying something about your background?

Nathan Goehring: At university, I was always fascinated by biology, but wasn’t quite sure what areas I wanted to study.  I ended up working on a lot of different things, from studying feeding behavior of these rather peculiar primates called Aye-Ayes to how pathogens evolve.  But ultimately, I ended up becoming fascinated by the structure of cells – how they can sense direction, size, shape and organize themselves accordingly to generate an organism like ourselves.

RB: What is the focus of your work?

NG: Our current work focuses on understanding how cells acquire their sense of direction, which we call cell polarity. Cell polarity is what allows a cell to tell its front from it back, top from bottom or even inside from outside.  It is this sense of direction or asymmetry that underlies much of the complexity in our bodies.  And this relies fundamentally on the ability of cells to break symmetry – hence our contribution to the exhibit.

RB: Can you say something about your Deconstructing Patterns collaboration and what it involves?

NG: We teamed up with a group of young film-makers to make a film inspired by aspects of our work.  In reality, they made the film, we just tried to give them some insight into thinking about how animals develop and expose them to some key concepts – Things like symmetry and asymmetry, the need to generate different cells with different identities, and arrange them in the right way.  I find it particularly fascinating how simple spatial rules can give rise to complex forms – for example a simple concept like the separation of oil and water operates inside cells to help shape cell identity.

In practice, this involved a coming up with a one day hands on workshop for the young filmmakers, which we hosted in the Crick’s teaching labs. We used iPads and selfie apps to explore symmetry and asymmetry of our bodies.  We used building blocks to explore how growth and development of animals follows rules.  And we also dedicated some time to exposing them to the actual science we do.  For this project, it helped that there is a strong visual aspect in our work – we spend a lot of time using microscopes, looking at what cells do and how patterns form and even making movies of all these processes.  So we made sure the young people all got to spend time using the same microscopes we use in the lab and took the opportunity to show off our own ‘movies’.

RB: What have you personally learnt from working in this collaboration and has this approach thrown up any surprises for you in regards to your previously held beliefs or intuitions?

NG: Given the age and background of the students, we had to break down our science into its most basic concepts and think about what really defines the essence of our work, and then come up with a vocabulary that would work in our interactions with them.  And in the process, I think we developed new ways of talking and thinking about the science we do.

RB: Philosophically there is a debate about pattern as an external phenomenon to be discerned in the world against the idea that humans impose pattern on experience in order to make sense of it. What are your thoughts on this debate?

NG: I think it is clear that patterns are simply part of the way the universe operates – there are fundamental rules and principles operating which manifest as patterns in space and time.  We spend much of our lives trying to decode the patterns in the world around us – decoding sounds in language, identifying changes in seasons or even the financial markets.  And actually, my take is that much of science is trying to discern these patterns around us and to ultimately uncover the underlying principles that are responsible for them.  Now this natural tendency to look for patterns, which likely evolved to help us survive in our environment, can also lead us astray – leading us to see patterns and principles operating where none exist, but that’s another issue.

RB: In terms of molecular and biological development, what are the properties that permit pattern formation and how are pattern boundaries established? What role does symmetry/asymmetry play in this?

NG: How much time do you have?  ‘Pattern’ is a pretty broad term, even limited to development of animals such as ourselves. That said, notions of symmetry and asymmetry are fundamental to biological organization and play out repeatedly in organismal development.

For example, at the earliest stages of development, we all start out as a single cell that for all intents appears symmetric. Now image that single cell divides into two identical daughter cells, and those into four, and so on.  All the cells would be the same – there would be no neurons, no skin cells, no muscles.  Somewhere along the way, symmetry must be broken so that we can generate cells that are different. And for bilateral organisms like ourselves, these cells must be arranged asymmetrically to define our body axes – anterior-posterior, dorsal-ventral, left-right.

Yet, despite this fundamental role of symmetry-breaking, both the timing of symmetry events in different organisms and the molecular mechanisms vary widely.  In C. elegans, asymmetry emerges in the one-cell fertilized embryo and asymmetries that define the body axes are already there by the 6 cell stage.  C. elegans uses molecular mechanisms quite distinct from mice, where the first asymmetries appear in the 8 cell stage embryo, with the axes following significantly later.

RB: Do you think artists and scientists share any common communication path?

NG: Probably.  Our work has a decidedly visual aspect to it, which is one of the things that attracted me to the field.  I still remember the first time I watched the first cell divisions of a frog embryo under the microscope. There is just something about witnessing these earliest stages of an animal taking form that just captivates me.  And there is a desire to share this feeling of wonder, which I would think would not be all that foreign to an artist.

That said, I think scientists and artists have fundamentally different goals and that’s fine.  It was great to see the young filmmakers take full advantage of their artistic freedom in this project – they didn’t try to explain the science we do.  Rather, they took inspiration from our work to explore topics that mattered to them.  But I was happy to see that some aspects of our work came through – notions of identity, disrupting uniformity, and transformation.  And maybe through the exhibit and this film, some visitors will be able to relate a bit better to our work on the systems that underlie patterns that emerge at the earliest stages of our own development.

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