MS, Developmental Biology, University of Tübingen, Germany
PhD, Developmental Biology, Max Planck Institute for Developmental Biology in Tübingen, Germany
Stowers Investigator Tatjana Piotrowski, PhD, is simply awed by the transparent zebrafish embryos she studies in her lab. “One of the things I love about our work is the beauty of these embryos,” she says. “It is an incredibly aesthetic experience to watch a single cell turn into an embryo.” The Piotrowski Lab has been making great progress in identifying genetic networks that orchestrate the formation and regeneration of sensory organs.
Piotrowski’s interest in science took root when she was growing up in the medieval town of Herrenberg near Germany’s Black Forest. She loved spending time outdoors, trying to understand the natural world and animal behavior. Called to a scientific career, Piotrowski went on to earn her BS degree in biology and MA in zoology from the University of Tübingen, Germany. She undertook her MA thesis work with R.G. Northcutt, PhD, at the University of California San Diego. It was at UCSD that she first started studying the anatomy and evolution of the nervous system of fishes.
After returning to Germany, Piotrowski earned her doctorate in the laboratory of Christiane Nüsslein-Volhard, PhD, at the Max Planck Institute for Developmental Biology, and then completed a fellowship in the laboratory of Igor Dawid, PhD, at the National Institutes of Health’s Laboratory of Molecular Genetics in Bethesda, Maryland. In both labs she studied craniofacial and nervous system development in zebrafish.
Following her training, Piotrowski joined the faculty of the University of Utah School of Medicine and was tenured in 2010. She joined the Stowers Institute in 2011 as an associate investigator and was promoted to full investigator in 2018. Today, her research focuses on the lateral line, a sensory organ in zebrafish, and the molecular mechanisms that allow zebrafish hair cells to regenerate.
The Piotrowski Lab focuses on development and regeneration of the lateral line sensory system in zebrafish. Research into this system offers growing insight into human sensory organ development and disease, including hearing disorders.
The lateral line develops from a group of around 100 cells called the primordium. The primordium forms behind the fish's ear, then begins migrating toward the tail tip, depositing hair cell-containing sensory organs, called neuromasts, along the way. Hair cells possess hair-like cilia and movement of those cilia enable fish to orient themselves and detect other organisms in the water. Similar hair cells exist in mammalian and fish ears and enable the animals to hear and sense gravity.
Piotrowski’s research has developed the lateral line system into a powerful model to study how cells move as groups throughout the embryo and how cells communicate to generate cells of different functions. For example, the Piotrowski Lab identified several genes required for the coordinated migration of groups of cells and uncovered how the Wnt/beta-catenin and Fgf molecular pathways interact to subdivide the primordium into a leading region and a trailing portion. These findings add to our understanding of cancer biology, as several human cancers, including breast and prostate cancer, invade tissues as groups of cells.
Another major research focus in the Piotrowski Lab is the study of how sensory hair cells in the lateral line develop and how they regenerate after damage. In mammals such as humans, hair cells in the inner ear die from aging or after noise exposure, causing hearing loss as they are unable to regenerate. In contrast, in chickens, amphibians, reptiles, and fish, new hair cells are constantly generated. Piotrowski’s lab has been performing single-cell expression analyses of regenerating sensory organs to determine which genes are activated or silenced in each cell. They are currently testing the function of these genes and how they are transcriptionally regulated. Piotrowski is hopeful the studies will teach them how zebrafish hair cells regenerate and provide them with clues of how to trigger hair cell regeneration in mammals, paving the way for treatments for hearing loss.
Co-editor Annual Review of Genetics
Member, National Institutes of Health (NIH), DEV1 study section
Advisory Board. The gEAR portal – Advancing Data Sharing, Analysis and Discovery for Hearing and Balance Research.
Editorial Board Member, Annual Review of Genetics.
Member, Board of Reviewing Editors, eLife.
Board Member, International Zebrafish Society (IZFS), North American Representative.
Member, Editorial Board, Developmental Biology
Embryology Course Marine Biological Laboratory Woods Hole, MA, USA. Zebrafish module.
ad hoc reviewer NSF, NIH (DEV2), NIH (ICI), NIDCD, ERC, DFG, BBSRC, SNF, etc.