Reach Out and Touch Someone: How cells communicate with each other

Like many non-scientists I used to think that sonic hedgehog was a video game. Now I know better thanks to a fascinating study by researchers at Stanford and UC San Francisco.

The researchers were trying to understand how developing cells of the embryo communicate with each other. So they put a fluorescent chemical tag onto a molecule they know is involved in the process, a molecule called a sonic hedgehog protein.

The glow-in-the-dark tag enabled them to see exactly what was going on in the cells in the developing chick, in real time. What they saw was fascinating. They saw the cells sending out long extensions, like skinny fingers reaching out in the dark, to make a connection with other cells.

The discovery was quite unexpected and raises lots of fascinating questions. And that’s the beauty of science. You make one discovery, and it raises questions that could ultimately, hopefully, lead you to a deeper understanding of how our bodies work. The lessons learned from basic science like this is what drives the more disease-focused work. If we don’t know how cells communicate and how our bodies form, we can’t possibly fix what happens when the process goes awry.

The study was published in the April 28 online edition of Nature.

Eryn Brown at the LA Times wrote a good story about the work, including a link to a description of how Sonic Hedgehog got it’s name.

K.M.

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