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Research Unit Sensory Biology and Organogenesis

The independent Sensory Biology and Organogenesis (SBO) research unit works with a zebra fish model system to examine cellular, molecular and physiological reactions to mechanical stimuli and sensory disorders. The focus areas are physical and mechanical tissue properties. The objectives are to examine the mechanisms that control sensory system development, self-regulation and regeneration and to research the evolution of the sensory organs that perceive the environment.

The independent Sensory Biology and Organogenesis (SBO) research unit works with a zebra fish model system to examine cellular, molecular and physiological reactions to mechanical stimuli and sensory disorders. The focus areas are physical and mechanical tissue properties. The objectives are to examine the mechanisms that control sensory system development, self-regulation and regeneration and to research the evolution of the sensory organs that perceive the environment.

More about our Research

Mechanosensation is one of our essential sensory modalities. Mechanosensory systems are responsible for detecting cutaneous mechanosensation, visceral mechanonociception,  hearing and balance. Our research interests are focused on understanding the fundamental principles that govern the assembly, homeostasis and regeneration of mechanosensory epithelia and their associated neuronal circuits. Our methods are grounded in the traditions of genetics and cell biology, high-resolution live microscopy, biological physics and animal behaviour. We primarily employ the zebrafish as experimental system, although we also use cultured mammalian cells and organoids as complements.

Our studies relate to what we call functional tissue architecture, or how the organisation of a tissue underlies organ function. We believe that shedding light on this fundamental question is important because it shall let us understand how sensory organs have evolved, how they work, and also how structural changes associated to diseases impact on their function. 

We have always encouraged the most original and creative research, and believe in the essential need of an integrative approach to biology and medicine. Our interdisciplinary team is formed by scientists with diverse backgrounds, from geneticists and cell biologists, to physicist and computational biologists.

Current projects in our laboratory address three fundamental aspects of the development, homeostasis, and regeneration of sensory systems

Epithelia represent the most common tissue in metazoa. Using the zebrafish as experimental system, we are studying cell-fate aquisition and epithelial structure during sensory-organ growth, homeostasis and regeneration. We employ state-of-the-art in toto live imaging. Our recent work has resulted is the discovery of a novel tissue-level cellular behavior called "planar cell inversion". This remarkable tissue reorganization offers insights into the process that underlies epithelial mirror symmetry. In collaboration with physicists and mathematicians, we have begun to use machine learning to systematically quantify planar cell inversion, cellular intercalation, and fate acquisition.  We are also investigating how mechanical forces are transmitted between cell during tissue remodeling. This line of work should unveil the link between the genetic and mechanical bases of epithelial architecture.

Peripheral sensory organs sense external signals to inform the central nervous system about the environment, which ultimately triggers appropriate behavioral reactions. We are systematically dissecting the assembly of neuronal first-order projections, whose study is important because is likely to form the basis of a neuroanatomical code that relays sensory information to the brain to create a central map of the sensory field. We have recently discovered that the birth order of sensory neurons in the zebrafish mechanosensory lateral line diversifies the lateral-line neural circuit, forming a convergent submap that triggers fast startle reactions, and a divergent submap that governs rheotaxis. The assembly of neural submaps is a simple and elegant strategy to control appropriate behavioral reactions to the sensory context. Currently, we are researching on the combined activity of neurons, and whether neural submaps form the bases of sensory-range fractionation. We are testing the hypothesis that the central encoding of the hydrodynamic field is based on the integration of the spatial distribution of sensory organs and the planar polarization of their constituent mechanosensory hair cells. We also want to understand the influence of epithelial architecture on the innervation of mechanoreceptors.

Neuropathies of the peripheral nervous system that develop in patients suffering from diabetes, for example, are complex and difficult to study. The experimental advantages afforded by the zebrafish are allowing us to model diabetic neuropathies in the whole organism, and to combine genetic, molecular and bioinformatic approaches with optical methods to sense or reprogram the metabolic status of the relevant cells. This approach is aimed at testing specific hypotheses about fundamental aspects of disease development and progression, whose results are integrated to collaborative efforts with physicians to test their clinical relevance. We hope that this integrative biological and medical approach will provide a framework for the development of strategies of regenerative or palliative medicine aimed at ameliorating the negative effects of peripheral neuropathies in humans.

Contact

Petra Hammerl

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