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Shuo Wei studies genetic mutations and the birth defects they can cause. A new federal grant supports his research.
before you were aware of anything or anyone even realized you were under
construction, things were happening that determined critical features
of your life.
In the earliest hours of your embryonic status, cells were developing
and multiplying, critical processes were starting up, networks were
connecting and genetic codes for better or worse were directing the
That early development is the focus of the research University of
Delaware biologist Shuo Wei pursues. Wei, associate professor of
biological sciences, looks specifically at how problems in cellular
signal relays affect these processes and cause birth defects.
Now Weis research has won more than $1.8 million in support from the
National Institutes of Health (NIH) for his study of genetic mutations that
can disrupt proper development of neural crest stem cells in embryos.
Neural crest stem cells are multipotent stem cells, which means
several kinds of tissues develop from these cells, including skull and
facial structures, heart tissue, pigment cells and the peripheral
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This image, captured by Yu Shi of the Wei Lab, shows normal development of the neural crest in a tadpole.
When something goes wrong with the neural crest, birth defects are
the result, including some of the most common known in humans.
Weis lab is focusing on the DDX3X gene and related genes and the roles they play in neural crest development.
The significance of the DDX3X gene in developmental disorders is
relatively new science, Wei said. One of his former doctoral students,
Mark Perfetto, brought the gene to Weis attention about seven years ago
when he saw a report in Science magazine.
He urged Wei to look into it
because the authors described the influence of DDX3X on a cell signaling
pathway known as Wnt signaling, a focus of Weis research. Many
researchers are investigating Wnt (pronounced wint) signaling because
of its critical role in embryonic development.
Because Wnt signaling is critical for neural crest development, we
hypothesized that mutating the DDX3X gene may cause neural crest
defects, Wei said.
They studied this mutation in frogs and found that all tadpoles that
had this genetic mutation had severe neural crest defects, such as
underdeveloped facial structures.
Two years after their discovery, other labs found that DDX3X
mutations cause multiple human birth defects including intellectual
disabilities, craniofacial disorders such as cleft lip and cleft palate,
and the most common birth defect of all, congenital heart disease. This
means mutations in the DDX3X gene also cause neural crest defects in
This image shows deformed features caused by genetic deficits and abnormal development of the neural crest.
As their work continued, Wei and his students realized they were
seeing a different process than the Science article described. They
started looking beyond the DDX3X gene to the downstream genes
controlled by it. Mutations of each of those genes produced symptoms in
both tadpoles and humans that were similar to those produced by DDX3X
Our hypothesis is that these genes, including DDX3X all function
along one pathway, Wei said. If one of these genes is mutated, you get
these birth defects.
We want to apply our discoveries to diagnosis and prevention. This
is personalized medicine. If you know the genetic mutations in your
patients, when they have kids you can make a prediction on the risks and
the kinds of medicines the pregnant mother can take or not take. If you
identify the mutation, you may be able to do something to prevent birth
Wei joined UDs faculty in 2016, responding to recruitment efforts by
Provost Robin Morgan, a longtime member of UDs faculty who chaired the
department then. He has found promising new opportunities in the
department, now chaired by Prof. Velia Fowler, as well as those in
chemistry and other disciplines.
I love the research environment here, he said. We have a great
department and a group of researchers working on similar problems with
all kinds of animal models. What attracted me most was the research
environment of the department and the collaborations with other
Wei earned his bachelors degree in biology at the University of
Science and Technology of China, his doctorate in biochemistry and
molecular biology at the University of Miami and did postdoctoral
research in cell and developmental biology at the University of
Article by Beth Miller; photos courtesy of Yu Shi of the Wei Lab
Published Sept. 15, 2020