Faculty & Staff
Catherine McCusker, PhD
Assistant Professor of Biology- Developmental Biology, Molecular Mechanisms of Regeneration
Areas of Expertise
Developmental Biology, Molecular Mechanisms of Regeneration
Professional Publications & Contributions
The research in Catherine McCusker's lab is broadly dedicated to elucidating the underlying mechanisms of organ regeneration in adults. Studies are currently performed on the Mexican Axolotl (Ambystoma mexicanum), which is one of the few tetrapod species that retains the ability to regenerate complicated biological structures as adults. Studies incorporate a variety of molecular, cellular, biochemical, and classical-embryology techniques to investigate how axolotl cells regenerate missing limb structures. The long-term goal of the work is to understand how regeneration naturally occurs in certain species so that we can apply these principles to safely unlock the regenerative potential in humans. In addition, research also has applications to other important areas of investigation, such as cancer and stem cell biology.
Current Research Projects
Cell communication during limb regeneration
Similar to organogenesis in developing embryos, the process of regeneration in adult organisms requires the production of “building blocks” (i.e. different tissues) that are assembled according to a specific "blueprint." Catherine McCusker's lab is interested in understanding the molecular underpinnings of how cells communicate during regeneration, resulting tissues that seamlessly integrate with each other to make a fully functioning biological structure. In particular she wants to determine how connective tissue cells interact with each other to generate the blueprint of the missing structure. She is also interested in how these "pattern forming" connective tissue cells communicate with other cell types to coordinate their assembly into the tissues of the limb.
Cellular reprogramming during limb regeneration
One of the most intriguing aspects of regeneration is that adult cells reinitiate an embryonic-like developmental program. For this to occur, these cells need to lose characteristics of their adult tissue to become the progenitor cells of the regenerating organ, known as blastema cells. This process is loosely called "dedifferentiation," although is has now become clear that the cells are not completely reprogrammed to an embryonic stem cell-like state. Regardless, the molecular processes that are activated in regenerating axolotl cells renders them capable of reorganizing and re-differentiating into the missing adult tissues. The work in this lab focuses on identifying what molecular cues in the regenerative environment activate the process of dedifferentiation, and how these cells are reprogrammed to generate the new structures.