There is a lot of folklore about left-brain, right-brain differences—the right side of the brain is supposed to be the creative side, while the left is the logical half. But it’s much more complicated than that. Marnie Halpern studies how left-right differences arise in the developing brain and discovers the genes that control this asymmetry.
Using the tiny zebrafish, Danio rerio, Halpern 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.
In the course of studying a mutation that produced fused eyes analogous to those of the mythological Cyclops, Halpern and a team from Vanderbilt University discovered that the affected gene codes for a protein signal that acts in the early embryo, then later reappears on the left side of the neural tube. This unexpected finding led her to explore where in the larval brain the molecular asymmetry resided and to determine its purpose.
Notable structural specializations are found within a precise region of the fish forebrain, and Halpern 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.
The Halpern 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, projects that have enabled former trainees to establish unique research directions in their own laboratories. Other current interests of the Halpern group include the genetic regulation of myelination—the process of myelin synthesis. Myelin is the insulating material that forms around the axons of neurons to expedite their electrical activity and that is compromised in multiple sclerosis.
Halpern is also very involved in outreach. Among her activities she runs a speakers program with the Baltimore public schools, Women Serious About Science, which encourages girls from diverse backgrounds to pursue careers in science. She received her B.Sc. in biology from McMaster University and her master’s at the McMaster University Medical Centre. She then went on to Yale for her Ph.D. and did postdoctoral work at the Institute of Neuroscience, University of Oregon. She joined the Carnegie staff in 1994. For more see the Halpern lab