Fly, Fly, Butterfly!

I knew going into the chalk talks that Misa Foster’s would be one to look forward to. From our previous conversations, I knew she was studying butterfly wing development. But even with my high expectations, she still managed to wow and amaze me, not only at her skill in speaking, but at the objective coolness of her research. Though it will be nowhere near as fascinating as her talk, I would like to relate to you all why I was so astounded and fascinated.

Misa is working in the Nijhout Lab studying the developmental biology of caterpillars, specifically their wing development. Biology 101 says creatures grow by cell division. Yet, while this is true, it doesn’t capture the whole picture. If cells were just to divide randomly in every direction, then every living thing would be a circle or a sphere. And yet, as evidenced in the magnificent beauty and architectural design of the butterfly wing, we know this is not the case. So, how do cells know when and where to divide? It is this fundamental question of developmental biology that Misa is trying to help answer.

To do so, she is extracting the imaginal disks (the precursor of the fully developed butterfly wing) from knocked out caterpillars. After staining these disks, she has to manually note and mark every mitosis event occurring in the cells. Then, with a little bit of programming, she can actually analyze where major trends of mitosis are happening in the wing. This addresses the “where” of cell division. By looking at disks in various stages of development, she can study the “when” by seeing how those spatial patterns of division change over developmental time. In addition, she can stain the wings with a different chemical to highlight DNA synthesis and see how this relates to mitosis patterns. Then, with a different program, she can map the patterns of DNA synthesis in the disks and see how they relate to mitosis trends at various stages of wing development. In total, this allows Misa to elucidate how cells grow and spread during wing development, unlocking another piece of the puzzle of how single cells can grow and develop into beautifully designed pieces of living art!

All in all, this is pretty cool! Misa is doing great work in developing our understanding of developmental biology and she did an outstanding job on Thursday presenting this radical science to all of us. Keep chugging along, Misa!!!

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