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March 16, 2016

Amy Ralston: Lessons from the Mouse Embryo

March 16, 2016

Amy Ralston is an assistant professor, department of biochemistry and molecular biology. She has made a key discovery that could advance research in regenerative medicine and have significant implications for fertility research.

Came to MSU: 2014; I started my own laboratory as a tenure track-assistant professor at the University of California, Santa Cruz in 2009. I moved to MSU because MSU is a superior research environment and East Lansing provides a higher quality of life.

Hometown: I lived in many places growing up (including the Pacific Northwest in the U.S., Montreal, Paris, and the Midwest).  I am happy to now call East Lansing my hometown. 

Muses: I derive scientific inspiration from my students, my postdoctoral fellows, and my colleagues (who are also my friends).  My non-science friends and my family inspire creativity that fuels both my science and my non-science activities.

Favorite food: Tofu (I’m not a vegetarian; I just love it).

Best song/group: My favorite folk musician is Nick Drake (best known for the song “Pink Moon”).  One Nick Drake album was set to repeat in my car stereo for about a year and a half.

Book I’d recommend: Right now I’m reading The Magicians trilogy by Lev Grossman.  It’s fun.

Coolest gadget: The coolest gadget would be my iPhone, except that I depend on it so heavily, I think it deserves a status above “gadget.”  Therefore, I am answering “zoodle slicer,” as my favorite gadget—it makes zucchini noodles!!

Best invention: Vaccination is one of my current favorite inventions.

Worst invention: The claim that vaccines cause autism was an egregious case of data manipulation, fabrication, and fraud. Although the paper has been retracted, its damage persists.

On my bucket list: I’d like to write a novel.

Person I’d most like to meet (living or dead): Leonardo da Vinci.  What a privilege it would be to describe what is now understood in biology and medicine, and to receive his comments and questions.

Best trip/vacation: A trip to France with my husband — either the one we took in 2000 or the one I hope to take as a post-tenure reward.

On a Saturday afternoon, you’ll likely find me: Trying to squeeze in some work during kids’ naps, or working on restoring our 1920 house.

Major research breakthrough of the next decade: Custom gut flora as medicine.

When most animals begin life, cells immediately begin accepting assignments to become a head, a tail or a vital organ. However, the cells of mammalian embryos get to make a different first choice — to become the protective placenta or to commit to forming the baby. These events happen during the first four or five days of human pregnancy.

We have identified the earliest possible source of stem cells in the embryo. Pluripotent stem cells can either be produced when scientists reprogram mature adult cells, or created by embryos during the crucial four-day window of a mammalian pregnancy.

Embryos make pluripotent stem cells with 100 percent efficiency. The process of reprogramming cells, manipulating our own cells to become stem cells, is merely 1 percent efficient. Embryos have it figured out, and we need to learn how they’re doing it.

Our research team first discovered that in mouse embryos, the gene Sox2 appears to be acting ahead of other genes traditionally identified as playing crucial roles in stem cell formation. Now, we’re trying to decipher why Sox2 is taking the lead role.

We know Sox2 is the first indicator that a cell is pluripotent. In fact, Sox2 may be the pre-pluripotent gene. We show that Sox2 is detectable in just one or two cells of the embryo earlier than previously thought, and earlier than other known stem cell genes.

The second discovery is that Sox2 has broader influence than initially thought. The gene appears to help coordinate the cells that make the fetus and the other cells that establish the pregnancy and nurture the fetus. Future research will focus on studying exactly why Sox2 is playing this role.

What we’ve learned from the embryo is how to improve efficiency, a process that could someday lead to generating stem cells for clinical purposes with a much higher success rate.

Reprinted with permission from the College of Natural Science.