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Scientists have accidentally discovered the genetics behind how we develop a front and back.

Auckland University researchers are looking at genes that control embryo development, specifically those involved in development of the gut immune system. They have been studying zebrafish, an organism which has similar genetic pathways to humans.

While looking at a particular group of genes (called the Runx genes), the researchers identified a long sought after genetic switch that ‘tells’ an embryo to develop a different front and back.

“After fertilisation, embryonic genes are switched on that prompt the formation of different axes, which allow development of a front and back, left and right, top and bottom,” Dr Maria Flores says.

“The genetic control for the front-back axis, or dorsoventral, has been a puzzling gap for a number of years. Quite unexpectedly, our research has identified this gene, Runx2, whilst looking at genes involved in stem cell development and gut immune system.”

Nature of science

Key scientific discoveries are often the result of looking more closely at unexpected or surprising results.

The aim of the research is to identify genes which may be important in the development of human gut diseases, such as Crohn’s disease.

    Published 26 February 2008