The complexity of the gene regulatory networks that allow a single cell to develop into an embryo has always fascinated me. My goal is to explore this network to discover how progenitor cells are able to differentiate in an orderly fashion, thus creating order out of chaos.
Dr. Duester studies the function of the vitamin A metabolite retinoic acid during embryonic development.
Dr. Duester earned his Ph.D. in Microbiology from the Medical College of Virginia in Richmond in 1981.
View All Publications
Resolving molecular events in the regulation of meiosis in male and female germ cells.
Kumar S, Cunningham TJ, Duester G
Sci Signal. 2013;6(288):pe25
Antagonism between retinoic acid and fibroblast growth factor signaling during limb development.
Cunningham TJ, Zhao X, Sandell LL, Evans SM, Trainor PA, Duester G
Cell Rep. 2013 May 30;3(5):1503-11
SnapShot: retinoic acid signaling.
Kumar S, Duester G
Cell. 2011 Dec 9;147(6):1422-1422.e1
Retinoic acid functions as a key GABAergic differentiation signal in the basal ganglia.
Chatzi C, Brade T, Duester G
PLoS Biol. 2011 Apr;9(4):e1000609
Sex-specific timing of meiotic initiation is regulated by Cyp26b1 independent of retinoic acid signalling.
Kumar S, Chatzi C, Brade T, Cunningham TJ, Zhao X, Duester G
Nat Commun. 2011 Jan 11;2:151
Retinoic acid promotes limb induction through effects on body axis extension but is unnecessary for limb patterning.
Zhao X, Sirbu IO, Mic FA, Molotkova N, Molotkov A, Kumar S, Duester G
Curr Biol. 2009 Jun 23;19(12):1050-7
Retinoic acid synthesis and signaling during early organogenesis.
Cell. 2008 Sep 19;134(6):921-31
Retinoic-acid signalling in node ectoderm and posterior neural plate directs left-right patterning of somitic mesoderm.
Sirbu IO, Duester G
Nat Cell Biol. 2006 Mar;8(3):271-7
Dose-dependent interaction of Tbx1 and Crkl and locally aberrant RA signaling in a model of del22q11 syndrome.
Guris DL, Duester G, Papaioannou VE, Imamoto A
Dev Cell. 2006 Jan;10(1):81-92
Retinoid activation of retinoic acid receptor but not retinoid X receptor is sufficient to rescue lethal defect in retinoic acid synthesis.
Mic FA, Molotkov A, Benbrook DM, Duester G
Proc Natl Acad Sci U S A. 2003 Jun 10;100(12):7135-40
Gregg Duester's Research Focus
Birth Defects, Limb & Vertebra Malformations, Vitamin Deficiency
Dr. Duester investigates the genetic regulatory mechanisms controlled by retinoic acid during embryonic development. His laboratory was instrumental in identifying enzymes that allow specific cells to metabolize the nutrient vitamin A (retinol) into an active form, retinoic acid, a potent regulator of gene expression. The tissue-specific location and timing of retinoic acid production during embryogenesis provides intercellular signaling information needed to regulate generation of tissues and organs from stem cells. Dr. Duester has found that mice carrying mutations in Raldh1, Raldh2, Raldh3, and Rdh10 fail to generate retinoic acid in specific regions of the embryo, resulting in defective differentiation of stem cells needed to form the heart, forelimbs, vertebrae, and central nervous system. His laboratory is now using these knockout mouse genetic models to understand what developmental pathways and genes are regulated by retinoic acid during organogenesis, a process that is very similar in humans and mice. By determining how retinoic acid normally functions as a central regulator of stem cells during organogenesis, his research helps reveal the regulatory logic that drives embryogenesis and provides a basis to understand human birth defects and guide efforts in stem cell manipulations designed to treat human disease or aging.
Gregg Duester's Research Report
Retinoic Acid Signaling During Development
Retinoic acid (RA) functions as a ligand controlling a nuclear receptor signaling pathway involved in growth and development of vertebrate organisms including humans. RA action requires enzymatic conversion of retinol (vitamin A) to an active ligand (retinoic acid) which can then bind RA receptors in the nucleus. Synthesis of RA from retinol is a two-step process in which alcohol/retinol dehydrogenases (ADH/RDH) perform oxidation of retinol to retinaldehyde, and retinaldehyde dehydrogenases (RALDH) perform oxidation of retinaldehyde to RA. Among the various secreted cell-cell signaling factors that direct developmental processes, RA is unique in that it is a small molecule (M.W. 300) that directly regulates gene transcription by entering the nucleus of target cells and binding to target genes via nuclear receptors. This is in stark contrast to other secreted cell-cell signaling factors such as fibroblast growth factor (FGF), WNT, transforming growth factor-beta (TGFb), and sonic hedgehog (SHH) which all bind cell-surface receptors and initiate intracellular signaling pathways that regulate transcription in the nucleus. RA signaling appears to be primarily a paracrine pathway as the cells that synthesize RA are not the targets of RA action (Fig. 1).
One major challenge in the study of vitamin A function is to discover when and where RA synthesis occurs during embryogenesis as this provides the ligand that initiates RA signaling. Another challenge is to determine exactly where RA acts when it is released from cells and functions as a signaling molecule. Our studies are also aimed at determining what genes are regulated by RA during formation of specific structures in target tissues, and exploring how RA signaling cooperates with other developmental signaling molecules encoded by Fgf, Shh, TGFb, and Wnt to control morphogenesis in target tissues. Our laboratory has generated RA-deficient mouse mutants that have allowed us to undertake a detailed investigation into the mechanism of RA signaling in order to more fully understand intercellular signaling pathways during development.
Some milestones made by our laboratory:
- Genetic Identification of Enzymes Controlling Retinoic Acid Synthesis Raldh1, Raldh2, and Raldh3 encode retinaldehyde dehydrogenases essential for oxidation of retinaldehyde to RA. Knockout mice for Raldh1, Raldh2, and Raldh3 lose RA synthesis in specific tissues during embryogenesis resulting in abnormal development. Raldh1-/-, Raldh2-/-, and Raldh3-/- mice as well as compound knockout mice are being used to learn more about the mechanism of RA signaling during development of specific tissues.
- Retinoic Acid Signaling Does Not Require 9-cis-Retinoic Acid
Two isomers of RA were originally thought to function as receptor ligands: all-trans-RA for retinoic acid receptors (RAR) and 9-cis-RA for retinoid X receptors (RXR). However, our Raldh2-/- rescue studies show that 9-cis-RA is not required to correct a lethal defect in RA synthesis as an RAR-specific synthetic ligand can rescue Raldh2-/- embryos. Also, HPLC analyses demonstrate that 9-cis-RA is not detectable in mouse embryos unless treated with high doses of retinoids.
- Retinoic Acid Acts as an Instructive Signal for Neural Development During gastrulation, RA synthesized in the somitic mesoderm travels to the adjacent neuroectoderm where it acts as an instructive signal to induce Hoxb1, Hnf1b, and Olig2 needed for development of the hindbrain and spinal cord. This pathway leads to development of hindbrain rhombomeres and facial motor neurons as well as motor neuron differentiation along the spinal cord.
- Retinoic Acid Represses FGF8 Expression During Early Organogenesis to Allow Proper Differentiation of Trunk Mesoderm: Limb Buds, Somites and Heart During gastrulation, RA acts as a permissive signal for differentiation of mesoderm by limiting the size of the primitive streak and cardiac Fgf8 expression domains, thus creating an FGF-free zone in between where the trunk develops. RA thus sets the anterior boundary of the primitive streak to allow proper somitogenesis and the posterior boundary of the heart to allow proper heart and forelimb bud development. We hypothesize that failure of this mechanism generates excessive FGF8 signaling to adjacent mesoderm resulting in smaller somites (vertebra precursors) displaying left-right asymmetry, a larger heart domain, and a failure to initiate forelimb budding (Fig. 2).
- Retinoic Acid Initiates Limb Budding But is Not Required for Limb Patterning
Our findings show that RA signaling is not required for limb proximodistal or anteroposterior patterning as originally postulated, but that RA inhibition of FGF8 signaling during the early stages of body axis extension provides an environment permissive for induction of forelimb buds.
Fig. 1. Paracrine mechanism of RA signaling. Retinol carried by retinol-binding protein (RBP4) enters cells by the receptor STRA6, and cellular retinol-binding protein (CRBP) converts retinol to retinyl esters for storage. In an RA-generating tissue, retinol is reversibly oxidized to retinaldehyde by either alcohol dehydrogenase (ADH) or retinol dehydrogenase (RDH), and retinaldehyde is irreversibly oxidized to RA by retinaldehyde dehydrogenase (RALDH). RA is then released and taken up by surrounding cells. Cells that express cytochrome P450 (CYP26) initiate degradative oxidation of RA and are not RA target cells. Some RA target cells express cellular-RA binding protein-2 (CRABP2) that facilitates RA transport to the nucleus where RA binds the RA receptor (RAR). RAR-RXR heterodimers bind retinoic acid response elements (RARE) and regulate transcription by altering the binding of cofactors. RXR also binds other nuclear receptors, so its function is not limited to RA signaling.
Fig. 2. Tbx5 mRNA detected by whole-mount in situ hybridization in wild-type (WT) and Raldh2-/- mutant mouse embryos. The mutant lacks a forelimb (f) domain, has an altered heart (h) domain that fails to loop, and fails to undergo embryonic turning needed to achieve the fetal position due to a failure in somitogenesis.
About Gregg Duester
Gregg Duester earned his Ph.D. in Microbiology from the Medical College of Virginia in Richmond in 1981. He received postdoctoral training at the University of California at Irvine and worked as Assistant Research Professor at that institution. Dr. Duester was appointed Assistant Professor in the Department of Biochemistry at Colorado State University at Fort Collins; he was recruited to Sanford-Burnham Medical Research Institute in 1991.
Postdoctoral Training, University of California, Irvine, Molecular Genetics, 1982-85
Ph.D., Medical College of Virginia, Richmond, Microbiology, 1982
B.S., Colorado State University, Fort Collins, Zoology, 1976
Honors and Recognition
John C. Forbes Graduate Student Research Achievement Award (1981)
NIH Postdoctoral Fellowship Award (1982-1985)
NIH Research Scientist Development Award (1989-1991)
Outstanding Basic Health Sciences Alumnus Award, Medical College of Virginia (2006)
Editorial Board for Developmental Biology