Our laboratory uses a multiorganismal approach to study the development and evolution of neural crest cells and ectodermal placodes. The neural crest is a migratory embryonic cell population that forms at the border between the neural plate and the future epidermis. Neural crest cells delaminate from the neuroepithelium in a rostrocaudal wave and migrate throughout the embryo to form a wide range of derivatives. They build much of the head skeleton, forming also all epidermal pigment cells, and together with cranial placodes, the peripheral nervous system. Because these cell types are unique to vertebrates, a comparative approach across vertebrates, from the basal lamprey to zebrafish, frog, chick and mouse, provides insights into conserved and divergent mechanisms of neural crest and placode development.
Because neural crest- derived cells are involved in a variety of birth defects and cancers such as neurofibromatosis, melanoma, neuroblastoma, our results on the mechanisms underlying neural crest development and evolution provide important clues regarding the mistakes that may lead to abnormal development or loss of the differentiated state.