We use the inner ear as a way of understanding developmental mechanisms that specialise cells and tissues. Our emphasis is on how cells use extrinsic instructions to regulate downstream genes and how these effect the cellular and subcellular changes that drive morphological adaptation to mechanosensory function.
The specialisation and organisation of cells to form organs that effectively carry out functions vital to life, is a fascinating problem. We investigate the formation of the inner ear as a model for cellular and tissue-level differentiation. The inner ear is a complex structure that is actually generated from a relatively simple group of cells. These cells should have become skin, yet receive a series of instructions that change their potential and their shape. Over time, a subset of these cells form inner ear hair cells. These are the sensors of the vertebrate inner ear, converting the mechanical vibrations associated with sound and balance into electrochemical impulses that are sent to the brain. These cells possess sub-cellular adaptations in the form of fine hair-like protrusions from the top of the cell, that enable the sensitive and precise detection of these vibrations.
The formation of these cells is also a consequence of instructions. How do inner ear cells receive these instructions and then decode and implement them? What are the physical and molecular responses of cells to these dynamic genetic and epigenetic cues? How can variation be introduced into the development of cells and tissues to enable fine-level functional tuning? Using a variety of molecular, cellular, imaging, and computational techniques, our aim is to generate a blueprint of the inner ear, that we can interrogate to understand congenital hearing impairment in particular, and developmental morphogenesis in general.