Molecular biology and imaging yield new knowledge on ancient transition
Growing up in England, Thomas Wood took an early interest in healing sick animals.
His neighbor in the town of Orpington, on the southeastern edge of London, was a veterinarian who showed eight-year-old Thomas how to nurse a pair of ailing cats.
“She had two very sick cats and would invite me round to show me what was wrong,” Wood says. “One of them had a really bad abscess and I cleaned out the wound.”
Inspired, Wood set out on a path toward veterinary college. But his budding passion for science and research eventually led him to an entirely different destination: The Department of Genetics at Rutgers University–New Brunswick.
Wood is a now a School of Arts and Sciences junior who logs up to 35 hours a week in the lab of Tetsuya Nakamura, a professor who studies the fish-to-tetrapod transition that occurred some 400 million years ago. Nakamura and Wood explore the genetic mechanisms that allowed fish to evolve into land vertebrates such as mammals, birds, and reptiles.I am studying the topic that fascinates me.
“It’s a crucial transition,” Wood says. “There were many fundamental changes that had to occur and that continue to shape our lives today.
Although an undergraduate, Wood is already contributing to the available knowledge in his field. He co-authored a review paper with Nakamura that was published last July in the journal Frontiers in Cell and Developmental Biology. In the article, the two write how state-of-the-art techniques in molecular biology and imaging are serving to expand our understanding of the genetics involved in the transition.
Although much is known about changes in bone structure, “the genetic underpinnings underlying the evolution are largely missing,” the article says.
In the lab, for example, Wood uses reverse genetic approaches and CT scans to identify the genes and molecular pathways involved in the origin of the neck. By “turning off” certain genes, he says, sample fish began to lose the solid connection that fuses the skull to the body, creating a gap in which a neck could develop.
“I am specifically looking at the making of the bridge between the skull and the rest of the body that became the neck and parts of the shoulder and scapula,” Wood says. “Expanding our knowledge of developmental pathways in humans is beneficial in many ways, including for understanding health, such as providing important information for the study of bone diseases.”
Wood’s own evolution—from aspiring veterinarian to genetics researcher—took hold naturally from his early interactions with veterinary surgeons. He found himself fascinated by genetic techniques such as polymerase chain reaction, or PCR, which is used to copy DNA or RNA samples for analysis.
“It was clear that these basic techniques could push the boundaries of what we know about medicine and genetic diseases,” he says
As it became evident that his interests went beyond veterinary science, one of the scientists he was working with in England advised him to seek out an American research university.
“And it just so happened that my guidance counselor received an email from Rutgers expressing interest in students and offering to help facilitate the process,’’ he said. “This set me on my 3,500 mile long path away from veterinary medicine in the UK to the genetics program here at Rutgers.”
It is a journey he is happy he made. The Department of Genetics, like others in the life sciences, offers ample opportunity for undergraduate research.
“It’s a fantastic situation,” Wood says. “I am studying the topic that fascinates me and getting amazing opportunities to generate new knowledge and to prepare for graduate school.”
He is right at home with the range of activities available at Rutgers. He’s involved with Association of Undergraduate Geneticists, the Filipino Martial Arts Club, and Leadership and Experiential Learning.