Researchers find human development's first gear

Oxford University researchers are closer to solving a decade-old mystery after discovering that a set of genes they are studying play a key role in early human development.

 

Evolutionary biologist Professor Peter Holland and graduate student Anne Booth identified and named the genes, known as Argfx, Leutx, Dprx and Tprx, in data published by the Human Genome Project in 2002. The genes belong to the homeobox group, and it was known that other homeobox genes direct the formation of tissues and organs during development. However, when they tried to find out exactly what the newly discovered genes did, they hit a problem.

Professor Holland explained: 'To find a gene's function, you first look to see where it is switched on or expressed. But wherever we looked for these genes we could not see them expressed, making their function more and more of a mystery. That is, until researchers in China sequenced all the genes active in the very earliest stages of human development, and that's where we found our genes switched on. This gave us an important clue.'