Rutgers–Camden genetics researcher receives prestigious award

“Why do we have two arms and two legs and not three of each? Why do we have five fingers and not six?”

For Nir Yakoby, beginning to answer those questions is now a little easier thanks to the National Science Foundation.

The assistant professor of biology at Rutgers University–Camden has earned the prestigious CAREER Award, which includes $686,544 for research. The five-year award is reviewed and renewed annually based on the scientific progress of the project.

The grant will allow Yakoby and his research team to study what happens to cells in the human body on their way to specialization.

“These questions are particularly intriguing since the cells in the human body all contain the same genetic information,” he said in a statement. “However, the clear cells in the eyes’ corneas are obviously very different from the cells that secrete insulin in the pancreas.”

One goal of the award is to integrate academic teaching with research in the lab. In the Yakoby Lab, Rutgers–Camden students study fruit flies to make connections to the development of humans.

A fruit fly will develop an eggshell while still just a developing embryo. The eggshell protects the embryo from the dry environment, while allowing for respiration through tube-like snorkels called dorsal appendages. Just as animals have different numbers of fingers, various species of fruit flies have different numbers of these appendages. The same signal that controls the formation of dorsal appendages in the fruit fly is also necessary to define the development of fingers in humans.

Through his CAREER Award, Yakoby proposes to study how changes in that signal allow for the formation of different numbers of appendages. His hope is that the reseach will help to understand tissue pathologies and developmental defects.

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