Beyond stem cells: U-M’s Yamashita receives Keck award

February 4, 2013
Contact: Jim Erickson

Yukiko Yamashita. Image credit: Michigan PhotographyYukiko Yamashita. Image credit: Michigan PhotographyANN ARBOR —Yukiko Yamashita of the University of Michigan’s Life Sciences Institute received an award from the W.M. Keck Foundation to support a research project called “Uncovering the role of non-random chromosome segregation during asymmetric stem cell division.”

Yamashita is a research assistant professor at LSI and an assistant professor in the Department of Cell and Developmental Biology at the U-M Medical School. She was one of a handful of researchers to win a Keck Foundation award in this round.

As part of its Medical Research Program, the foundation will provide $500,000 to advance her research on stem cell biology.

Yamashita’s project is based on her lab’s recent discovery that stem cells can distinguish between two seemingly identical copies of chromosomes during asymmetric cell division, a process that leads to two daughter cells with different fates. This process, in which cells distinguish between two identical copies of chromosomes and distribute them to the daughter cells, is called non-random chromosome segregation.

Her lab has found that only a subset of chromosomes shows non-random segregation and has identified the molecules required for this process. With the support from the Keck Foundation, the lab plans to investigate how cells achieve non-random chromosome segregation, how broadly this process is conserved in evolution and what biological purposes this process serves.

The Yamashita lab investigates mechanisms of asymmetric stem cell division. But stem cells aren’t the only cells capable of asymmetric division. Other cells throughout the body are able to divide into two different types, especially during embryonic development.

Yamashita says this project pushes beyond the boundaries of the stem cell field. The research could provide insights into how cells can generate different types of cells through asymmetric cell division and shed light on the mechanisms by which a the single cell of a fertilized egg becomes an animal made of hundreds of trillions of cells as diverse as skin, neuron, bone, blood and other types.

The Keck Foundation funds distinctive endeavors that are novel in their approach. It encourages projects that are high-risk with the potential for transformative impact. “High-risk” comprises a number of factors, including questions that push the edge of the field, present unconventional approaches to intractable problems or challenge the prevailing paradigm.

“If we can figure out how cells are dividing this way, the scientific understanding of how the body develops—and how it breaks down with aging and disease—could change,” Yamashita said. “It is very basic science, but it could have wide-ranging implications that could be exploited in therapeutics and drug discovery.”


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