Robert Cornell

Associate Professor

I have a broad background in developmental biology, with specific training and expertise in neural crest, periderm, and melanocytes. The overriding focus of my research ever since my graduate training has been the genetic regulation of cellular differentiation during embryonic development. One subgroup in my lab examines how transcription factor AP2 (Tfap2) paralogs regulate several steps of neural crest development. We discovered that Tfap2 paralogs are essential for induction of neural crest and for differentiation of one of its derivatives, melanocytes. We are identifying the targets of Tfap2 as it executes these functions. In keeping with our interest in regulatory networks, a second subgroup is studying the regulatory pathway upstream and downstream of IRF6 in the course of periderm differentiation. Failure of oral periderm differentiation is a major cause of cleft lip and palate, a common birth defect. A third subgroup investigates a gene whose protein product is essential for differentiation of melanocytes and, interestingly, dopaminergic neurons. As a postdoc I isolated a zebrafish trpm7 mutant. My group subsequently discovered that in such mutants most melanocytes and dopaminergic neurons fail to differentiate. We are currently investigating the mechanistic underpinnings of this requirement. There is continual interaction among members of all three subgroups; progress in any one area quickly informs our thinking in the other areas.