A new study from Princeton University sheds light on the handing over of genetic control from mother to offspring early in development. Learning how organisms manage this transition could help researchers understand larger questions about how embryos regulate cell division and differentiation into new types of cells. The study, published in the March 12 issue of the prestigious journal Cell, provides new insight into the mechanism for this genetic hand-off, which happens within hours of fertilization, when the newly fertilized egg is called a zygote. "At the beginning, everything the embryo needs to survive is provided by mom, but eventually that stuff runs out, and the embryo needs to start making its own proteins and cellular machinery," said Princeton postdoctoral researcher in the Department of Molecular Biology and first author Shelby Blythe, Ph.D. "We wanted to find out what controls that transition." Dr. Blythe conducted the study with senior author Dr. Eric Wieschaus (photo), Princeton's Squibb Professor in Molecular Biology, Professor of Molecular Biology and the Lewis-Sigler Institute for Integrative Genomics, a Howard Hughes Medical Institute (HHMI) investigator, and a 1995 Nobel laureate in physiology or medicine for “discoveries concerning the genetic control of early development.” Researchers have known that in most animals, a newly fertilized egg cell divides rapidly, producing exact copies of itself using gene products supplied by the mother. After a short while, this rapid cell division pauses, and when it restarts, the embryonic DNA takes control and the cells divide much more slowly, differentiating into new cell types that are needed for the body's organs and systems. To find out what controls this maternal to zygotic transition, also called the midblastula transition (MBT), Dr.
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