June 1st, 2014: Exactly one year after my departure flight from Bologna to Boston to attend the 2013 MBL Embryology course held at the Marine Biological Laboratory in Woods Hole, MA (https://thenode.biologists.com/six-weeks-in-woods-hole/events/), I was again in the Bologna airport, only that this time I was landing from the States.
I was returning to my home institution, the University of Modena and Reggio Emilia, Italy where I am a last year graduate student, from the Stowers Institute for Medical Research in Kansas City (MO, USA), where I spent the last 3 months working in the laborartory of Prof. Alejandro Sánchez Alvarado.
Thanks to the 2013 MBL Embryology course, where I met Prof. Sánchez Alvarado (Director of the course together with Prof. Richard Behringer), and thanks to the Development Travelling Fellowship, I could collaborate with a great research group in one of the best places anywhere in the world that a biologist can work at: the Stowers Insitute (http://www.stowers.org/stowers-report/fall-2013/best-places-to-work).
At the time of the 2013 MBL Embryology course, I was working mainly on the immune functions of the freshwater gastropod, Pomacea canaliculata, a mollusk which is considered a dangerous pest already invading North America and South-East Asia from the South America. Pomacea is also the intermediate host of the nematode Angiostrongylus cantonensis, which causes eosinophilic meningitis in humans. This snail is aggressively invading new territories because of its adaptability to different kinds of environmental conditions and resistance to multiple stress conditions. As such, the characterization of the immune system of this snail is important for controlling its diffusion by allowing to uncover features that may be vulnerable to intervetions for eradication.
However, after the 2013 MBL Embryology course in Woods Hole, I became highly interested in regeneration and the incredible mechanisms able to activate either stem or differentiated cells in order to increase the proliferative rate and build either amputated parts or whole organisms altogether. More than two hundred years ago, Lazzaro Spallanzani’s experiments (in part performed in Modena, by the way) showed that terrestrial snails are able to regenerate their heads after decapitation. In Woods Hole, I was really impressed by the regenerative capacity of planarians, which can be included with mollusks and other groups into the lophotrocozoan taxon. Because of this, when I returned to Modena in 2013, I tried and cut the sensory organs of P. canaliculata in order to verify if it is able to regenerate.
I was very excited when I observed that after 2, 3 and 4 weeks, respectively, the cephalic and oral tentacles, as well as the eyes were completely regenerated. This observation formed the basis for my period in Kansas City as a visiting student.
Before I left for Kansas City, I collected the samples of the regenerating cephalic tentacles, oral tentacles and eyes of Pomacea canaliculata at different time points. Once at the Stowers Institute, the RNA purification and sequencing of the samples and the bioinformatic analysis of the data allowed for the construction of a transcriptome database. A high-resolution time-course was produced for each organ and the analysis of the gene expression profiles uncovered a significant number of genes differentially expressed during the regeneration processes surveyed. The availability of the transciptome of these complex organs will allow for detailed molecular analyses of the pathways involved in regeneration, providing a solid foundation for my future studies.
These three months at the Stowers Institute, which directly stemmed from the 2013 MBL Embryology course, gave me the chance to write a personal three-month project, learn new techniques, work with a planarian model, perform experiments in the field of regeneration, and collect data that will be surely useful in my future studies. Last but not least, at the Stowers Institute I met a lot of great scientists, and attended many interesting lectures. Equally enjoyable were my interactions with post-docs from all over the world from whom I benefited extensively through their continuous and kind assistance in my lab activities.
I am confident that this experience will reveal of fundamental importance for me and my scientific career.