Lab Profile: Harrison Lab

By Tyler Gibson, CMB Student

Harrison Lab: uncovering mechanisms of transcription regulation during development

How do specialized egg and sperm cells come together to generate a new organism? Following fertilization, how is gene expression regulated to direct development and differentiation? These fundamental questions drive the research of the Harrison Lab. The early embryo is transcriptionally silent and early development is controlled by maternal mRNAs and proteins that are loaded into the egg prior to fertilization. During the first stages of development, these maternal products are gradually degraded, and transcription of the silent zygotic genome is activated in a process known as the maternal-to-zygotic transition (MZT). These dramatic reprogramming events set the stage for future development and make the early embryo an outstanding model system for studying gene regulatory processes including transcriptional activation, post-transcriptional regulation and chromatin remodeling. Because this essential process is common to all animals, the Harrison lab uses the fruit fly Drosophila melanogaster to study the molecular underpinnings of these early embryonic events.

An image of a living Drosophila embryo with fluorescently labelled DNA (purple) and the essential transcription factor GAGA factor (green). Image courtesy of 5th-year CMB student Marissa Gaskill.

Through collaborations across and beyond the UW campus, the lab has expanded to explore the regulation of gene expression in other developmental contexts. Recent work has investigated how transcription factors act to maintain populations of neural stem cells in the developing brain. This project has focused on how some of the same proteins that are required for normal embryonic development also act to promote stem cell self-renewal in the brain. Members of the Harrison lab are also collaborating with the labs of CMB trainers Catherine Fox and Peter Lewis to model human disease in Drosophila. These studies are providing insights into the molecular mechanisms that lead to these developmental disorders.

The central philosophy driving the lab is to follow the science wherever it takes you. Students in the Harrison lab fully embrace this mentality, each bringing a unique background and set of interests. Current students have come to the lab from backgrounds as varied as plant ecology, synaptic transmission, and malaria genetics. Following the biology requires being open to any and all approaches, including classical genetics, biochemistry, genomics, bioinformatics, and microscopy. While everyone in the lab ends up doing a bit of everything, lab members tend to develop an area of expertise. As a result, the Harrison lab is a highly collaborative environment, where students frequently lend their expertise to enhance the science of their peers. When not in the lab, students can be found exploring food and music around Madison, getting outside to walk their dogs, or playing Dungeons and Dragons.

For more information about the Harrison Lab, visit:

To keep abreast of the ongoing research follow the lab on Twitter: @harrisonflylab