The Centre for Geometric Biology’s Christen Mirth has been recognised for her research on how nutrition shapes development, having been awarded the Ross Crozier medal by the Genetics Society of Australasia.
When Christen first began working on this problem in 2003, using the fruit fly Drosophila melangoster as a model, researchers knew that nutrition had a role in the secretion of insulin-like peptides. These peptides, in turn, influenced the rates of body growth. What they didn’t know, was what made insects stop growing.
During her postdoc, Christen and her colleagues discovered there was another hormone involved in regulating when growth should stop: ecdysone, the steroid that controls moulting in insects. It turned out that nutritional changes can control the timing of a critical pulse of ecdysone, which commits an insect to metamorphosis. In other words, ecdysone was the key they had been looking for, determining the developmental rate and the final size of the insect.
What’s more, the team found certain organs, such as the wings and the ovaries, require this ecdysone pulse for cells to acquire organ-specific identities and to grow. Organs also change the way they respond to nutritional cues with time by changing the combination of hormones required for growth, providing a further buffer against nutritional environments determining organ size. Such differences in the way organs respond to nutrition (and the associated hormone releases) are important as they allow for variation in animal shape and ensure that correct organ function is maintained in different nutritional conditions.
Christen has gone on to investigate other hormones and, in collaboration with colleague Associate Professor Alexander Shingleton of the University of Illinois, has found another developmental hormone that regulates body size but not developmental timing. This ‘juvenile hormone’ reduces insulin signalling and increases the concentration of ecdysone without altering the timing of ecdysone pulses.
Now as leader of the Mirth Lab, Christen emphasises how the group’s work provides a theory for the way nutrition might influence the growth of other animals. Nutrition may act as a stimulus, modifying insulin signalling and the synthesis of key developmental hormones like sex steroids in mammals.
The Ross Crozier medal was established by the Genetics Society of Australasia to recognise outstanding contributions to the field of genetics research by mid-career Australasian scientists. It has been awarded annually since 2011. The medal commemorates celebrated Australian evolutionary geneticist Ross Crozier (1943–2009).