We are interested in understanding how the epigenome is established during human development and stem cell differentiation, and how epigenetic information changes over the life course of a person.
To research these topics, we use different types of stem cell (primarily human pluripotent stem cells), stem cell-based embryo models (blastoids and gastruloids), and donated human embryos, in combination with a variety of molecular and genetic approaches to investigate their epigenomes.
This research is important because establishing our epigenomes correctly during development is vital for establishing a healthy pregnancy, and has long lasting consequences on our health. We therefore need to know more about how it happens and why it sometimes goes wrong. Our work also provides new avenues for improving the epigenetic stability of human pluripotent stem cells, and our ability to drive their specialisation towards useful cell types, which are essential requirements to fulfill their promise in regenerative medicine.
Studies of mammalian development have advanced our understanding of the genetic, epigenetic, and cellular processes that orchestrate embryogenesis and have uncovered new insights into the unique aspects of human embryogenesis. Recent studies have now produced the first epigenetic maps of early human embryogenesis, stimulating new ideas about epigenetic reprogramming, cell fate control, and the potential mechanisms underpinning developmental plasticity in human embryos. In this review, we discuss these new insights into the epigenetic regulation of early human development and the importance of these processes for safeguarding development. We also highlight unanswered questions and key challenges that remain to be addressed.
In the adult mouse brain, the subventricular zone (SVZ) underlying the lateral ventricles harbours a population of quiescent neural stem cells, which can be activated (aNSCs) to initiate proliferation and generate a neurogenic lineage consisting of transit amplifying progenitors (TAPs), neuroblasts (NBs) and newborn neurons. This process is markedly reduced during aging. Recent studies suggest that the aged SVZ niche decreases the pool of proliferating neural/stem progenitor cells (NSPCs), and hence adult neurogenesis, by causing transcriptomic changes that promote NSC quiescence. The transcription factors that mediate these changes, however, remain unclear. We previously found that the homeobox gene Dbx2 is upregulated in NSPCs of the aged mouse SVZ and can inhibit the growth of NSPC cultures. Here, we further investigate its role as a candidate transcriptional regulator of neurogenic decline. We show that Dbx2 expression is downregulated by Epidermal Growth Factor receptor signaling, which promotes NSPC proliferation and decreases in the aged SVZ. By means of transgenic NSPC lines overexpressing Dbx2, we also show that this gene inhibits NSPC proliferation by hindering the G2/M transition. Furthermore, we exploit RNA sequencing of transgenic NSPCs to elucidate the transcriptomic networks modulated by Dbx2. Among the top hits, we report the downregulation of the molecular pathways implicated in cell cycle progression. Accordingly, we find that Dbx2 function is negatively correlated with the transcriptional signatures of proliferative NSPCs (aNSCs, TAPs and early NBs). These results point to Dbx2 as a transcription factor relaying the anti-neurogenic input of the aged niche to the NSPC transcriptome.
Recent years have seen exciting progress across human embryo research, including new methods for culturing embryos, transcriptional profiling of embryogenesis and gastrulation, mapping lineage trajectories, and experimenting on stem cell-based embryo models. These advances are beginning to define the dynamical principles of development across stages, tissues and organs, enabling a better understanding of human development before birth in health and disease, and potentially leading to improved treatments for infertility and developmental disorders. However, there are still significant roadblocks en route to this goal. Here, we highlight technical challenges to studying early human development and propose ways and means to overcome some of these constraints.