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Snapshots of Life: Development on Display

Posted on by Dr. Francis Collins

This image depicts an embryonic Little Skate, Leucoraja erinacea, sitting atop its yolk sac.

Credit: Katherine O’Shaughnessy and Marin J. Cohn, University of Florida, Gainesville

What on earth is this strange-looking critter?  Well, among other things, it’s a scientific super model whose photo shoot landed it among the winners of the Federation of American Societies for Experimental Biology’s 2013 BioArt Competition. Researchers use this stingray-like sea creature, called Leucoraja erinacea or Little Skate, as a model organism for studying development.

This image, taken using a stereomicroscope with transmitted light, shows a 10-week-old Little Skate embryo attached to its nutrient-rich yolk sac. Because the skate can develop normally even when removed from its egg case, it provides an accessible system for exploring how genes direct the formation of internal organs.

The diversity found in the natural world can also reveal unexpected insights into human disease. For example, it turns out that the genes controlling development of the Little Skate’s fins are strongly influenced by male sex hormones. And this is the really surprising part: researchers have discovered that the genes activated in the skate fins are the same genes that respond to hormones in human prostate, breast, and skin cancers. So, by studying these genes in this bizarre-looking denizen of the deep, it’s possible to probe the genes that trigger disease in humans.


BioArt, Federation of American Societies for Experimental Biology

Martin Cohn, Molecular Genetics & Microbiology, University of Florida

BioArt 2013 Exhibit. The public can view an exhibit of the winning art at the NIH Visitor Center. Located in Bethesda, MD, the Center is open from 8:30 a.m.–4:30 p.m. M–F.

NIH support: National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences; National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases


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