Course Meeting Times

Lectures: 1 session / week, 2 hours / session


Students are expected to have taken at least one of the following courses:

7.03 Genetics

7.06 Cell Biology


7.28 Molecular Biology

Prerequisites may be waived with permission by the instructor.

Course Description

Multicellular organisms develop from single cells that form as a result of fusion between two haploid gametes, e.g., sperm and egg. The fertilized egg, known as a zygote, undergoes a series of dynamic developmental events to give rise to a multitude of cell types, such as neuronal cells in the brain and central nervous system and hematopoietic cells that generate the immune system.

Understanding how these different cell types, each with their own unique functions, are generated from the totipotent zygote is a major goal of research in the fields of developmental biology and biomedicine. Because most cells within a given organism contain the same genetic information regardless of differentiated state, cell identity is manifested through a number of molecular mechanisms that influence cellular behavior and function without altering DNA sequence.

In this course, we will explore how animals determine and maintain cell fate and discuss changes to DNA structure and packaging, special proteins (known as "master regulators") with the ability to alter cell fate via transcription, cell-cell signaling, and RNA localization. We will examine how researchers have defined cell identity and potency and analyze critical papers describing the discovery and characterization of stem cells, which are undifferentiated cells able to give rise to multiple cell types.

Additionally, we will examine the development and maintenance of numerous specialized cell types considering, for example, evolutionarily conserved developmental pathways that lead to a germ cell (sperm or egg) identity as opposed to a somatic (non-germ) cell identity in a variety of animal species. We will discuss crucial somatic developmental pathways, including the restriction of cell fate in differentiating hematopoietic lineages. We will conclude by examining how failure to maintain proper cell fate and identity can lead to disease and consider disorders of sexual development as well as a number of cancers.

Format & Expectations

The goal of this course is to learn how to critically analyze and discuss primary scientific literature. Each week has two primary research papers assigned for required reading. Students should come to class having read both papers thoroughly, and be prepared to discuss and critique each paper. This will entail close examination of both the text and figures presented in the paper, such that the students should be able to comment on the authors' approach, experimental design and control experiments, interpretation of data, and conclusions. Each class will primarily consist of discussion of the assigned papers, with a short segment at the end of each class to introduce background information for the next week's topic.


There will be one short written assignment and a final oral presentation during the course.


This course is graded pass / fail. As the course is discussion-based, attendance at every class is mandatory and participation is an essential requirement for a passing grade.


1 Class introduction  
2 Potency and pluripotent stem cells  
3 Signatures and mechanisms of pluripotency: Transcriptional networks  
4 Signatures and mechanisms of pluripotency: Bivalent chromatin domains  
5 Germ cell identity  
6 Reprogramming of germ cells and stem cells Submit proposed paper for writing assignment to instructors
7 Reprogramming soma by pioneer transcription factors  
8 Defining hematopoietic identities: Part 1 Written Assignment due
9 Defining hematopoietic identities: Part 2  
10 Regulatory mechanisms for immune cell identity: Chromatin and transcription factors  
11 Regulatory mechanisms for immune cell identity: Cell signaling  
12 Disorders of cell identity: The reproductive tract and germ cell identity  
13 Disorders of cell identity: Hematopoiesis Submit proposed paper for final oral presentation to instructors
14 Cellular reprogramming and therapeutics  
15 Oral presentations and evaluations Oral Presentations due