Our research interests center on understanding the molecular events that lead to the determination, differentiation and survival of the highly specialized sensory cells and neurons. The mammalian sensory system carries external and internal sensory information to the central nervous system, where it is processed to coordinate motor responses. The establishment of these sensory circuits in the adult depends critically on the generation of distinct neuronal types and sensory receptors at proper times and positions during embryogenesis as well as on their maintenance throughout life. Despite the importance of sensory cells/neurons, however, the molecular basis of their formation and survival is still poorly understood. My laboratory employs a variety of molecular genetic and bioinformatics approaches to identify and study transcription and other regulatory factors that are required for programming development of the retina, inner ear, somatosensory ganglia, spinal cord, and brain. A major focus of our work is to develop animal models to study roles of transcription factor genes during normal sensorineural development, as well as to elucidate how mutations in these genes cause sensorineural disorders such as blindness and deafness.
My laboratory utilizes two general approaches to understand the biological roles that a transcription factor gene plays during vertebrate neurogenesis. One is a loss-of-function approach involving targeted gene disruption in mouse embryonic stem (ES) cells to produce mice deficient for the gene of interest. The other is a gain-of-function approach involving plasmid/retrovirus-mediated overexpression of the gene of interest in the chick and mouse embryonic tissues. These complementary approaches have allowed us to identify a number of transcription factors including Foxn4, Barhl and Brn3 as crucial regulatory factors that are required for fate commitment, differentiation and/or survival of various sensory cells and neurons.