The Marnie Halpern laboratory studies how left-right differences arise in the developing brain and discovers the genes that control this asymmetry. Using the tiny zebrafish, Danio rerio, they explores how regional specializations occur within the neural tube, the embryonic tissue that develops into the brain and spinal cord.
The zebrafish is ideal for these studies because its basic body plan is set within 24 hours of fertilization. By day five, young larvae are able to feed and swim, and within three months they are ready to reproduce. They are also prolific breeders. Most importantly the embryos are transparent, allowing scientists to watch the nervous system develop and to identify mutants easily.
The laboratory has studied diverse problems using this versatile fish and its powerful genetics, initiating new projects to understand the basis of neural tube defects, to study patterning of the skeleton, and to visualize digestive physiology.
Notable structural specializations are found within a precise region of the fish forebrain, and they found that the signal influences whether they end up on the left or the right side. Remarkably, a member of the very same protein family had previously been shown to control the left and right differences in our internal organs, such as the characteristic rightward looping and left positioning of the heart, the counterclockwise coiling of the intestines, and the placement of the pancreas on the left and the gall bladder and liver on the right side of the body.