Taste of Tufts: Professor Kelly McLaughlin researches organ development

Associate Professor of Biology Kelly McLaughlin last Friday spoke at the Experimental College’s Taste of Tufts series, discussing her research on the regenerative and developmental abilities of cell groups in South African Clawed Frogs (Xenopus laevis).

We’re trying to figure out how organs are formed and, once they are formed, how they can repair themselves.” McLaughlin said. “The question that my lab is really asking is how you can take these cells that for the most part are very similar … separate them, and create completely normal looking adults.”

McLaughlin described the cells’ abilities to differentiate themselves.

“At some point, those cells have to become different from one another … They have to know who they are and who their neighbors are,” she said.

McLaughlin’s work examines organ formation in three different processes: development, regeneration and remodeling. For a group of cells to develop into a certain, structure they have to be stimulated in certain ways.

“If I’m going to be a heart cell, I need to know that I’m going to be a heart cell,” she said. “The cells around me have to not only know that I’m a heart cell, but that they’re not heart cells. There’s going to have to be some give and take between the cell … and the environment.”

McLaughlin provided an artistic metaphor for attendees of the lecture.

“We have these undifferentiated cells … and we’re then going to make an organ field,” she said. “One way to think about it: You’ve got this block that you’re going to sculpt … As you keep sculpting, you’re going to get more and more defined structures … In many ways, that’s what happens with development.”

This process is not only complex, but also robust, she said.

“One of the weird things about [the Xenopus frog] is that it develops outside of moms