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Dr James Glover on embryonic patterns

Understanding the fundamentals of embryonic pattern formation, receiving a Chancellor’s Fellowship from the University, and designing a multispecies study using chicken models.

Dr James Glover is a Chancellor’s Fellow who specialises in cell and developmental biology to understand how gene signals and cells interact to form patterns during embryonic development. In this interview, Dr Glover talks about his recent work, the potential applications of his research and the challenges he faces in a competitive research field.

Dr James Glover in Yosemite park

Could you tell me a bit about your background and your research in a nutshell?

I did my undergraduate degree at St Andrews University, in cell biology and pathology. I then came to Edinburgh to do my PhD on primordial germ cells with avian biology expert Dr Mike McGrew at the Roslin Institute; initially at the former site of the Institute in Roslin village, before we moved to the Easter Bush campus in 2011. After my PhD I started a postdoc with Dr Denis Headon, and he and I have been working together for nine years now.

My main area of research is in periodic patterning during organ development. Periodic patterns are configurations of repeating elements such as spots and stripes, which are observed throughout nature such as in the colouration of animals. These patterns also arise during embryonic development to create functional organs and tissues. In 2017, we published a paper on mammalian hair follicle formation which revealed further insight into the fundamental mechanisms by which these type of patterns are produced. This led us to studying human embryonic skin development, which included investigating how fingerprints form their unique patterns.

Congratulations on being awarded a Chancellor's Fellowship from the University. What project will you be working on?

Through this fellowship, I want to keep on expanding my research into the fundamental processes that drive how periodic patterns are produced. I'll be working on studying how tracheal cartilage forms. The trachea, or windpipe, contains a number of cartilage rings, which form in stripes and provide structure and flexibility to maintain airflow to the lungs. However, it is not known how these cartilage rings are laid out during development. Using the chicken embryo as a primary model, in combination with cell-based systems and engineering techniques, we aim to use tracheal patterning as a paradigm to understand how periodic patterns are produced across different organs and in different species.

Could these chicken embryo models be applicable to humans?

I am using chicken as a primary model system due to the availability and accessibility of the egg which enables researchers to readily visualise and manipulate embryonic development. However, despite the advantages of studying the chick embryo, avian transgenic technology still lacks behind mammalian counterparts. Therefore, it is also my ambition during my fellowship to develop novel avian transgenic tools to study embryonic pattern formation. For this, I’ll be working with the National Avian Research Facility (NARF) here at the University’s Easter Bush campus. Although I will use the chick embryo as my primary model, my research will involve multiple species, exploiting the natural variation of avian species along with mammalian systems, to determine whether unifying principles exist that govern periodic pattern formation during vertebrate development.

Do you think there could be applications of your work in terms of lab grown tissue?

It's exciting to think that cells could be used as a means of creating replacement organs, although this is a very complex process that still remains a little while off. By understanding how embryonic tissues and organs are patterned during development, it is my hope that this knowledge will be useful in guiding future tissue regeneration strategies in vitro, to produce lab-grown organs which form in a similar way to that which occurs naturally.

Do you have a favourite project that you've worked on?

I think colleagues would expect me to talk about our recent fingerprint pattern research here, in which we discovered how fingerprints form, but my favourite is my first research project with Dr Headon, studying hair follicles. These usually form in spots, and need a signal template to tell the cells how to arrange themselves. However, in a certain scenario, you can get rid of that signal and the cells will organise themselves – but rather than spots, they adopt maze-like pattern structures. This work demonstrated for the first time that different types of patterning systems can exist in the same organ.

Saying all that, our fingerprint work, showing that our unique patterns are formed by a process driven by gene activity and shaped by the individual anatomy of our fingers, was very cool. It's also quite recent and took a lot of very hard work so maybe in a few years I'll look back on it as a favourite project.

What challenges do you face in your work?

It's very competitive to get funding, and depending on what field you're in, you can be a small lab competing against more established groups who have more resources. It can be quite difficult to get your research to the point where you want it to be with the resources that you have at hand, and also to get there in a timely fashion to not get scooped by anybody. Generally in the UK there's a lot of collaboration, especially in developmental biology, and if two labs are trying to work on the same thing you could work together, but this isn't always the case. It’s really treading that line between communicating your research regularly, while ensuring you make the best strategic decisions to avoid putting yourself at a competitive disadvantage.

Ideally, what would you like the outcomes of your research to be?

It is my hope that advancing our understanding of embryonic patterning will provide insight into associated developmental disorders, which may also be able to guide future approaches in regenerative medicine. For example, in Pallister Hall syndrome, patients often have multiple patterning defects including disrupted tracheal cartilage rings, extra digits and cleft palette, highlighting that the processes involved in embryonic organisation are conserved across the body. By studying the core mechanisms by which organs and tissues form, we can understand what goes wrong in congenital conditions and also how to faithfully reproduce these structures in vitro.

What inspired you to become a scientist?

I've always been interested in nature, and found biology very exciting. I liked maths and other sciences at school, but biology was always my favourite. I think this is because understanding how the body works and how things form always fascinated me. In my undergrad and PhD I became particularly interested in cell biology; how cells acquire fate, and then how cells organise to form organs and tissues.

If you weren't a scientist, what would you be doing?

I’d like to say a professional golfer, but I’m definitely not good enough for that. So if I hadn't been a biologist, maybe I would have liked to be an engineer or an architect because I'm quite artistic, like designing and enjoy understanding how structures form and function. We do a lot of problem-solving in biology, so maybe combine that with my fingerprint knowledge and perhaps I could train to be a police detective.