Peter Devreotes of Cell Biology
on cell movement:
Where are you from?
DEVREOTES: I'm from New Jersey, but I've been here in Baltimore since I started grad school, except for a post-doctoral fellowship in Chicago.
How did you decide to study science?
DEVREOTES: I never thought about anything else. My father taught me a lot of math and took me on nature walks. I developed this fascination with everything in nature and wanted to know how it worked---I still do. I was actually a physics major in college---didn't take a single biology class-but I decided to do a Ph.D. in biophysics, at Johns Hopkins' Homewood campus. I was immediately fascinated by the mechanics of cells.
What else do you enjoy?
DEVREOTES: Boating, biking, nature walks, do-it-yourself projects and traveling.
What does your lab study?
DEVREOTES: Our whole lab focuses on how cells move. Cells in the body are constantly moving, sometimes randomly, usually in specific directions. For example, when you cut yourself, the wound heals because your skin cells migrate back together again. Pus is another example. It's made up of white blood cells that have moved out of the bloodstream to the site of infection. An example of cellular motion gone wrong is cancer metastasis. The biggest problem with cancer isn't with the tumors themselves, but with the cancer cells that leave the tumor and move to new locations.
If we can understand the fundamental mechanisms, researchers can eventually learn how to manipulate cells to fix problems like metastasis or enhance processes like wound healing.
What do you use to study cell movement?
DEVREOTES: Most members of the lab work on a simple model organism, an amoeba called Dictyostelium discoideum, or "Dicty" for short. It's a great system for studying migration and motility because the individual cells are very responsive to external cues (See Wiki video). It's very easy to manipulate them experimentally, too. You can put genes into them or take them out in a few weeks. Plus, it's easy to grow and image them. They're a good model because their behavior and many of their molecular mechanisms are very similar to those of mammalian cells.
The other members of our lab work on human neutrophils, a type of white blood cell that acts as a first responder whenever there is any injury in the body. Studying these cells allows us to quickly test ideas that we develop in Dicty on human cells in our lab.
What tools are most helpful in your studies?
DEVREOTES: Two landmark developments in the last two decades have really pushed our field forward: the identification of the chemotaxis receptor (the protein that receives directional signals) and the discovery of the green fluorescent protein (GFP) gene. Now GFP can be "genetically attached" to almost any protein we want to study so that we can see where that protein is in a cell. This gives us much more information than the earlier biochemical tests we relied on.
Computer simulations have also helped a lot. They confirm our observations and put them into a theoretical context. We're constantly collaborating with colleagues at Homewood to develop better, more accurate simulations. Our latest involved simulating the interactions of two different protein networks to better understand how they direct "random" cell movement.
Do you have any advice for students interested in science?
DEVREOTES: Do what fascinates you and work really hard. Even though science may seem daunting at times, if you stick with your passion, you will succeed.
-- Interviewed by Catherine Kolf
Peter Devreotes | Studying How Cells Move