Chiou-Fen Chuang   

Associate Professor

PhD, California Institute of Technology

Website: Dr. Chuang's Lab

Molecular and genetic mechanisms of sensory diversity in C. elegans
The nervous system generates a tremendous diversity of cell types. The specification of right cell types at right positions is a fundamental step allowing neurons to form functional circuits and networks for information processing and mediating behaviors. Embryonic stem cells (ESCs) and induced pluripotent stem cells (iPSCs) can efficiently differentiate into functional neurons using developmental principles.  Therefore, understanding how neurons acquire their distinct identities will lead to the development of strategies for cell replacement therapy. However, the molecular mechanisms that generate neuronal diversification are only partly understood.  

The goal of our research is to use C. elegans as a model system to elucidate genes and mechanisms that generate sensory diversity at molecular and neural circuit levels. C. elegans consists of just 302 neurons with reproducible functions, morphologies, and synaptic connections. We know the identities, positions, and lineages of all neurons, as well as the complete wiring diagram in the C. elegans nervous system. In addition, the transparency of C. elegans allows us to visualize cell fates at single cell resolution in live animals using fluorescent markers. Furthermore, we can use C. elegans behaviors such as moving, mating, attraction towards specific odors, or avoidance from particular odors to analyze specific functions of individual neurons. Studies in C. elegans have led to the discovery of many important biological mechanisms (such as programmed cell death, RNAi, miRNA, axon guidance pathways) that are conserved from worms to humans. Thus, what we learn from C. elegans is significantly relevant to human research of similar biological or psychological areas of interest. 

Our research interests have been focused on molecular and genetic analysis of two mechanisms that we identified for generating sensory neuron diversity.

1. Stochastic left-right neuronal asymmetry in a gap junction-dependent cell network.

2. Genetic switches between alternative sensory neuron fates.

In addition to further characterization of these mechanisms, our future research program will also explore novel molecular mechanisms underlying cellular diversity in the sensory system. As the genes and developmental pathways we study are evolutionarily conserved, we believe that insights obtained from these studies will provide entry points for studies in more complex organisms. We aim to translate our work to studies of vertebrate systems through collaborations.

Representative Publications (Complete list of publications on Google Scholar)

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Contact Information

Office: 4070 MBRB, MC 567
Phone: 312-996-9292