van Amerongen Lab - Developmental, Stem Cell & Cancer Biology

- Swammerdam Institute for Life Sciences - University of Amsterdam -  

Our research explained

Life is complex and dynamic

You may rarely stop to think about it, but the human body is incredibly complex. It is composed of a staggering 10^13 (that's a million times a million times ten) cells. Each of these cells originated from a single, fertilized oocyte and each has a specialized function. During embryonic development they organized themselves into tissues and organs that formed at exactly the right place and the right time. You might say, that by the time we are born we (or rather: our cells) have already taken some of the most important decisions of our life.
So how do cells take decisions? How do they know when to divide and when to stop dividing? How do they know which specialized function to carry out and how do they know what their neighbours are doing? In other words: how do they respond to a constantly changing environment, in a complex organism that is actively moving around (or watching Netflix)?

Cellular communication networks

It turns out that cells are equipped with sensitive and flexible communication networks (or 'signaling pathways'). In the same way that our social media networks (think Facebook or LinkedIn) are composed of friends or connections, the cellular communication networks are composed of proteins. They are the molecular work horses of the cell and can be seen as messengers that relay signals from the outside (the 'extracellular environment') to the inside. Ultimately, the signal ends up in the nucleus, which houses the DNA. This DNA contains all of the information (the recipe, so to speak) to synthesize new proteins with specific functions.
Most of the DNA is packaged into a compact bundle (otherwise the 2 meters of DNA that are present in every cell would never fit into the nucleus). Depending on the signal received, specific parts of the DNA will unwind and open up, so that the genetic code can be read (by yet another set of dedicated proteins) and the required proteins can be synthesized.
The main goal of our research is to understand how this chain of events is controlled and executed. We focus on one specific cellular communication network, called the 'Wnt pathway', which plays a crucial role in the growth and maintenance of tissues.

Want to know more?

There are plenty of opportunities to hear more about science. Here are some of the initiatives in the Netherlands where the general public can meet scientists to learn about a wide range of topics:
- SPUI25, the academic and cultural center of the University of Amsterdam offers a varied program of talks.
- Science Cafés are held throughout the Netherlands. In Amsterdam, De Balie regularly hosts a Kennis Café.
- Scientists literally pop up in science museums and science centers throughout the Netherlands at special events.
- During the national science weekend, most universities and research institutes open their doors to the general public for lectures, demonstrations and behind the scences visits
- For those with kids: check out the "Wakker Worden" lectures at the Nemo Science Center in Amsterdam. Get up early on a Sunday morning to hear scientists answer all sorts of questions.