Matthew Harris

Matthew Harris

Fellow: Awarded 2014
Field of Study: Organismic Biology & Ecology

Competition: US & Canada

Harvard Medical School; Boston Children's Hospital

I am an assistant professor in the Department of Genetics at Harvard Medical School and Orthopedic Research at Boston Children’s Hospital.  The work in my lab focuses on understanding the genetic regulation of development and how development translates the information encoded in our genomes into complex integrated systems of an organism.  Our question is if development, through the simple nature of its integration, may harbor latent potential to replace lost or damaged structures, as well as the evolution of new forms.

One way in which the lab addresses this question is to use genetic analysis in laboratory studies to identify variations in the genome that are essential in establishing the overall form of an organism.  We use freshwater fish species to study the control of development and look in detail at the formation of the adult skeleton.  We then address if the processes we discover that regulate skeletal formation are similar both in other experimental organisms as well as in cases of disease.  One might think that fish are too dissimilar to us to allow for a useful comparison. However, a finding stemming from research in comparative genetics is that many developmental processes are shared even between distantly related animals.  Thus even work on fish can can lead to insights about the inner workings of our bodies and how they go wrong.  We are interested in seeing if the generative and regenerative properties present in the development of fish can be translated towards a better understanding of the causes of disease and to support the identification of new therapeutic strategies.

A complementary approach we use is to look at morphological variation in nature. As nature tinkers, its experiments may reveal unexpected insight into inherent generative capacity within development. Although there exists an impressive array of diversity in nature, it is becoming clear that this variation can be due to common mechanisms even between unrelated species. Thus the causes of variation in one species may be predictive of changes occurring in another, evolutionarily distant one.  However, very little is known concerning the genomic or genetic workings of the majority of species in nature, as they do not lend themselves to classical genetic analysis. Through support from the Guggenheim Foundation we are refining methods to delineate the genetic changes underlying evolution through genomic profiling—in essence, we hope to capitalize on nature’s experiments to define the genetic foundation for evolutionary change and the effect of development in shaping the outcomes.

The work from my lab has been published in both the scientific literature as well as represented in the popular press and media (Discover, Scientific American, Wired, Ted Talks). Current research and the individual research interests of members of the lab can be found here.

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