A major aim of this grant is to investigate the developmental origin of the skeleton-forming cells in the head. An understanding of how these skeletal cells form in the embryo will aid in our long-term goal of producing skeletal replacement cells in culture and stimulating new skeleton to form after traumatic head injuries.
In the first year of this award, we have made a landmark discovery concerning how the skeletal-forming cells arise in the head. The head skeleton arises from an unusual cell population called the neural crest, which is characterized by its ability to form a very wide diversity of cell types in the embryo. We had previously described the isolation of two mutant lines of zebrafish that completely and specifically lack the head skeleton. We have now identified a mutation in a variant histone protein as the genetic basis for the lack of head skeleton in one of these lines. Histone proteins play a central role in not only wrapping our DNA but also controlling which genes are active in different cell types. Despite the fact that histones are expressed in every cell in the body, we have found that variant histones are uniquely required for neural crest cells to acquire skeleton-forming potential. In particular, our findings indicate that the head skeleton forms by a process of developmental reprogramming, in which precursor cells with a limited potential undergo large-scale changes in their DNA packaging such that they are able to form a much wider array of cell types.
Controlled cell reprogramming is becoming one of the most promising directions of regenerative medicine. For example, there is enormous therapeutic potential in being able to take cells from a patient, reprogram these cells back to a naïve state with defined factors, and then induce these cells to form replacement cells of any type that can be introduced back into the patient. Our discovery that the vertebrate embryo uses a similar process of reprogramming to generate head skeletal cells during development provides us an opportunity to better understand how reprogramming works at a molecular level. In addition, our finding that head skeletal cells form by developmental reprogramming suggests that adult patient-specific cells can be directly reprogrammed to form head skeletal precursors. Moreover, as the variant histone we have identified is identical at the protein level between zebrafish and humans, it is likely that the reprogramming process we have discovered operates in humans as well. Thus, in the coming years of this grant we are excited to develop methods of reprogramming adult patient-specific cells to a head skeletal fate, such that we can generate large quantities of replacement cells to repair the face and skull.