Frontiers of health: Developing understanding

By Hilary Parker
July 01, 2007

Fruit fly embryos reveal basics of healthy development

Stas ShvartsmanThe vials of fruit flies that line the shelves of Stas Shvartsman’s lab would be expected in a biology lab, but Shvartsman is a chemical engineer. His approach to developmental biology—as unconventional as his lab—has promising implications for the prevention and treatment of birth defects and cancer.

Using a combination of theoretical, computational and experimental techniques, Shvartsman analyzes multiple aspects of fruit fly development. Since identical genes and processes have been observed in many species, research on fruit flies today could contribute to a greater understanding of human health tomorrow, he said.

“The same processes that make tissues in developing organisms also give rise to disease when they become deregulated, as in cancerous tumors,” said Shvartsman, associate professor of chemical engineering and the Lewis-Sigler Institute for Integrative Genomics. “We are moving toward understanding what is necessary for proper development.”

fruit fly embryo

Shvartsman credits Princeton’s developmental biology pioneers, including Trudi Schupbach and Eric Wieschaus, with establishing a firm foundation from which to build.

“They wrote the book about developmental biology, in every sense of the word,” said Shvartsman, who earned his Ph.D. in chemical engineering at Princeton in 1999, advised by Yannis Kevrekidis. “In my group, we are trying to come up with models that summarize their data and guide new experiments.”

His projects include work with Schupbach, professor of molecular biology, to explore the distribution of substances that direct the formation of tissues in an embryo. Other research efforts focus on understanding feedback mechanisms that control pattern formation in embryos, the first step toward healthy development of limbs and major organs.

“Stas is one of the pioneers in trying to model complex developmental pathways based on quantitative data,” Schupbach said. “The fact that his background is so different from the traditional developmental biologist allows him and his group to come up with lots of new questions and different ideas of how to approach problems in development.”