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SMALL SCALE, BIG REWARDS: Susan Rehorek, Slippery Rock University biology professor, studies the evolution of the face in alligator embryos to help determine whether or not humans follow the same pattern of development as other animals.

Researchers examine alligator embryos

SLIPPERY ROCK, Pa. - For Slippery Rock University biology Professor Susan Rehorek the work is done on a tiny scale, but could have very large rewards.

Rehorek, who joined the SRU faculty in 2000, is slicing and dicing alligator embryos on the cellular level as part of her studies on the evolution of the face. The overall concept is to help determine whether or not humans follow the same pattern of development as other animals.

The research is being conducted with Timothy Smith, professor in SRU's School of Physical Therapy, and Abigail Progar, a biology major from Gardners studying in the cytotechnology track.

Rehorek said students who gain experience in histology, the study of how cells interact, by working with her and Smith find they then have very marketable skills that make them highly sought-after as histotechnologists in the job market following graduation.

She said, the CAVE - Comparative Atlas of Vertebrate Embryology - project the SRU researchers are working on is designed "to provide the diverse research community of vertebrate biology with a common resource and to be a complement to the Virtual Human Embryo database, by naming anatomical structures across different species."

"The CAVE project will ultimately pave the way for addressing major problems and gaps in the developmental understanding," she said.

"It will make a crucial contribution to, and complement, existing atlases and databases because it will involve the efforts of some of the comparative anatomists currently working on both the development and adult morphology of both the hard and soft tissues of all the major vertebrate groups, from lampreys to humans," she said.

The research project involves embryology, a combination of anatomy and developmental biology, and provides profound insights into evolutionary biology and how organisms are related and ultimately into human evolution, variations and diseases, she said.

"We are ultimately proposing to establish a website that will provide these diverse research communities with a central resource on the developmental anatomy of key vertebrate species that will allow researchers to compare the development of different species and ultimately to extrapolate the results of developmental and experimental studies to the understanding of vertebrate evolution and ontogeny in general and of human evolution, development and medicine in particular," Rehorek said.

"There is already a considerable body of literature on model organisms such as zebrafish [Danio], frogs [Xenopus], chicken [Gallus] and mice [Mus]. However comparisons of these distantly related groups of related organisms are insufficient, hampering our ability to illuminate the nature of evolutionary transitions across the Vertebrates," she said

In seeking funding, Rehorek said her grant proposal was twofold in that it aimed to produce alligator and procure lemur [Microcebus], serial histological slides in several embryonic and fetal stages.

"The embryonic lab slides are being digitally photographed and the images will be aligned, stacked and used to generate 3D reconstructions, and we will examine some of these stacks, focusing primarily on our area of expertise - specific structures of the facial region - and develop descriptions of the development of this region," she said.

Working with Smith, the researchers have begun preparing the digitized models, which can be viewed in a wide-variety of ways, including rotation, dissection, by region or layer, or even put in motion.

The project is not unlike the recent thin slicing of an entire human cadaver top-to-bottom and side-to-side with the resulting slides then stacked and animated to allow medical students, and others, working with a computer program to better see and understand exactly how the various body parts are interconnected and work together anatomically.