Have you ever wondered whether you could clone a prize racehorse from a hair off its back? This Ask a Scientist question reached Alexey Veraksa, an assistant professor of biology at the University of Massachusetts, Boston, and a former HHMI predoctoral fellow. "I receive profound biological questions that probe our existence," he notes. "Cloning generates a lot of interest." As to the answer, Veraksa says, "You can probably do it technically, although cloned animals are generally weaker than the parent for unknown reasons." Moreover, he notes, horse-racing authorities have already ruled against allowing genetically engineered horses to compete.
Veraksa says that when he has to research answers to Ask a Scientist questions, he checks his books or the library or visits the Internet. He might also consult his colleagues and sometimes even his wife, a sociologist. "There's an old Russian saying: 'One mind is good, but two are better!'" he says.
A native of Russia, Veraksa received his undergraduate degree at Moscow State University and discovered his passion for developmental biology. "I am driven by a basic scientist's interest to know how embryos develop," he says. "Most animals start as a single cell. How can one cell develop into a complex organism composed of billions of cells? This is a basic biological question that still requires an answer."
Veraksa moved to the United States in 1994 and later earned a Ph.D. at the University of California, San Diego. After completing a postdoctoral research fellowship at the Massachusetts General Hospital Cancer Center, Harvard Medical School, in 2005, he began his current position at the University of Massachusetts, where he heads a laboratory. "I really appreciate the opportunity for doing research that America provides," he says. "If you apply your talent and have motivation, if you have a strong interest in science and would like to contribute to it, this is a great environment. I consider myself very lucky."
As part of his doctoral research, Veraksa investigated how the fruit fly body plan is determined by the homeobox genes. He later studied the Notch signaling pathway-a general cellular communication system active in many tissues during animal development. Most recently, he has worked on mapping protein interaction networks and investigating how protein complexes change in response to signaling events. In his new lab, Veraksa will continue to investigate the dynamics of protein interactions in Notch and other signaling pathways during development. "The developmental pathways are in many cases the ones involved when cells go cancerous or develop some other disease," he says. "By studying normal signaling in development, we can glean insights that can be useful in treating disease."
Veraksa likes working with the fruit fly Drosophila melanogaster. "Despite some newer additions to the range of model systems, the fruit fly is one of the best. The generation time is short-10 days at 25°C-and the fly has yielded a wealth of genetic information already. It also turns out that many fly genes are similar to ours, and it is easy to make transgenic flies-and much cheaper than mice," he says.
Veraksa says that while we've learned a lot about single genes in the past few decades, in coming years the emerging discipline of systems biology will help us return to more holistic biology and begin understanding how the whole genome works.
Author: Cathy Kristiansen