In the scientific community, taste buds don’t get a lot of attention.
They aren’t a vital part of the body, after all. But the development of these sensory organs can provide a glimpse into the workings of the cell-signaling systems that play a central role in cell development.
“One such system, the Notch pathway, is a way for cells to communicate with one another,” said Deborah Eastman, the Milne Associate Professor of Biology. “It’s important in the development and differentiation of embryonic and adult cells, and it’s associated with several cancers and other diseases.
“It’s very complex, and researchers have been studying it from a lot of different angles and model systems. But relatively few labs study taste buds, so that opens up new possibilities.”
So what can the development of taste buds in the embryos of an obscure Mexican salamander teach us about cancer, Alzheimer’s disease and CADASIL syndrome, a hereditary stroke disorder?
Eastman and her students are trying to find out. Throughout the summer, four students in her lab, Rocio Cardenas ’19, Anna Camilleri ’18, Louie Feingold ’19 and Cara McConaughey ’19,
ran a series of experiments to explore when the Notch pathway plays a prominent role in the development of taste buds in the embryos of axolotls, a species of Mexican salamander.
“We think it may help instruct a cell to become a taste bud cell rather than another type of cell in the mouth,” she said. “So we want to know, if we inhibit the Notch pathway, what happens to the taste buds?”
The students looked at the development of taste buds at various embryonic stages, and also designed their own experiments to look at gene expression. While the results aren’t yet final, the students did observe fewer taste buds in embryos in which the Notch pathway was inhibited.
In addition to contributing to a growing field of study, Eastman said summer research helps students learn lab skills like microdissection and immunostaining and get a sense of what being a researcher is really like: a rollercoaster of excitement and frustration.
“A lot of science is, ‘Oh, that didn’t work,’ but we learn from it,” she said. “And once you succeed, you want to continue to find answers to the next question.”
After spending the summer in Eastman’s lab, McConaughey fully understands that drive for success. The cellular and molecular biology major and psychology minor looked at the expression of two genes, HES1 and HES6, in the development of taste buds. This fall, she’s doing an independent study with Eastman.
“I’m hypothesizing that when we inhibit the Notch pathway, I’ll see less HES1 and more HES6 and that they are inversely related,” she said.
McConaughey was one of 37 students conducting science research this summer on campus with 12 faculty members in chemistry, biochemistry, biology, environmental science, behavioral neuroscience, physics, computer science and bioinformatics.