Stowers Institute welcomes two new faculty members

Renowned developmental biologist Tatjana Piotrowski, PhD, and pioneering regeneration expert Alejandro Sánchez Alvarado, PhD, joined the Stowers Institute for Medical Research last year.

Associate Investigator Piotrowski hails from the University of Utah’s School of Medicine, where she was an associate professor in the Department of Neurobiology and Anatomy. She uses zebrafish as a model system to study early developmental processes such as collective cell migration, cell type specification, and stem cell biology. Piotrowski is particularly interested in the development of hair cells, which detect water movement along the lateral line in fish. These hair cells are arrayed along the animal’s trunk and form the lateral line sensory system unique to aquatic vertebrates. Deflection of those hair cells, which resemble the hair cells responsible for hearing in the human inner ear, enables fish to orient themselves and detect other organisms in the water.

Her research uncovered a previously unappreciated role for glia—the nervous systems’ support crew—in the regulation of hair cell precursor proliferation and functional maturation. Piotrowski also identified several genes required for the coordinated migration of groups of cells, a process that is still poorly understood.

At Stowers, Piotrowski will continue to use zebrafish to dissect the molecular programs governing the migration and differentiation of hair cell precursors. Since fish hair cells—in contrast to hair cells in the inner ear of vertebrates—regenerate readily following hair cell death, she will use the same model system to gain a better understanding of the molecular and cellular basis of hair cell regeneration.

“I am truly excited about coming to the Stowers Institute,” says Piotrowski. “My research on the mechanisms underlying sensory organ development and regeneration will benefit tremendously from the cutting-edge technology and unique resources available at the Institute.”

Piotrowski’s husband, Howard Hughes Medical Institute Investigator Alejandro Sánchez Alvarado, also hails from the University of Utah, where he held the H.A & Edna Benning Professorship of Neurobiology and Anatomy. One of the world’s leading authorities on regeneration, Investigator Sánchez Alvarado transformed the flatworm Schmidtea mediterranea—famous for its capacity to regrow complete individuals from minuscule body parts—from an unassuming, freshwater-dwelling oddity into a powerful new model system for the study of regeneration.

Sánchez Alvarado identified and characterized dozens of genes and genetic programs that drive regeneration and ensure the anatomical and functional integration of newly made parts into older, pre-existing tissues. He showed that adult somatic stem cells are the only proliferating cell type participating in regeneration and generate the approximately forty different cell types found in an adult flatworm.

“I am thrilled to be here,” says Sánchez Alvarado. “Scientifically, there’s no better place to be. This is not only an outstanding opportunity to advance my laboratory’s planarian research program in particular, but also regeneration biology as a whole. I am planning to take full advantage of the unique environment the Institute has to offer.”

Piotrowski received her master’s degree from the University of Tübingen, Germany, and her doctorate from the Max Planck Institute for Developmental Biology in Tübingen.

Born and raised in Caracas, Venezuela, Sánchez Alvarado received a BS in molecular biology and chemistry from Vanderbilt University in Nashville, Tennessee, and a PhD in pharmacology and cell biophysics from the University of Cincinnati College of Medicine in Cincinnati, Ohio.

To learn more about Tatjana Piotrowski’s and Alejandro Sánchez Alvarado’s work: