Birth of a neural tube: Development of a normal frog embryo showing formation of the neural tube – the hollow structure that will become the brain and spinal cord. Blocking a gene called "shroom" disrupts closure of the tube, mimicking neural tube defects like spina bifida in humans. (Credit: Saori Haigo, John Wallingford/UC Berkeley)
A single gene appears to kick off a critical step in the development of the early embryo - the formation of the brain and spinal cord - and thus may offer a way to screen for fetal spinal cord defects such as spina bifida.
Neural tube defects, including spina bifida - an open spinal cord - and anencephaly, or lack of a complete brain, are among the most common serious birth defects in the United States. While the incidence has gone down in this country thanks to educational efforts encouraging pregnant women to take folic acid supplements, some 30 percent of neural tube defects appear to have a genetic cause unrelated to folic acid deficiency.
Reporting in the December 16 issue of Current Biology, researchers at the University of California, Berkeley, and the University of Pittsburgh, establish that activation of a lone gene, called "shroom," triggers specific cells in the embryo to bend, initiating a curling of tissue into a closed neural tube that eventually becomes the spinal cord and brain. Though conducted in frog embryos, the experiments have implications for all vertebrates, including humans.
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