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Daniel St Johnston

stjohnstonDaniel St Johnston PhD FRS FMedSci, Director, Professor of Developmental Genetics in the Department of Genetics.

St Johnston Group website | Europe PMC | Pubmed




Polarising epithelial cells and body axes

2016 StJohnstonHow do cells know ‘up’ from ‘down’? Normal cells in the body are not symmetrical spheres; most take up specialised shapes and perform different functions at opposite ‘ends’. Cell polarity is also essential in development, for example in determining the head-to-tail axis of many animals, for cell migration and for asymmetric stem-cell divisions to supply specialised daughter cells.  Furthermore, loss of polarity is a hallmark of tumour cells and is thought to contribute to tissue invasion and metastasis.

We explore polarity in Drosophila and in mouse intestinal organoids. Much of our work focuses on epithelia, the sheets of polarised cells that make up most organs of the body to form barriers between compartments. We study the factors that mark different sides of the cell and how these organise the internal cell architecture. For example, we have determined how cells divide so that both daughters stay in the epithelial layer, and have found a mechanism that pulls cells born outside the monolayer back into place.  Now we are using live super-resolution microscopy to visualise polarised transport in epithelial cells.

Selected publications:

• Bergstralh DT et al. (2016) Pins is not required for spindle orientation in the Drosophila wing disc. Development [2016] Jun 10. pii: dev.135475. [Epub]

• Bergstralh DT et al. (2015) Lateral adhesion drives reintegration of misplaced cells into epithelial monolayers. Nat Cell Biol 7(11): 1497–1503.

• Khuc Trong P et al. (2015) Cortical microtubule nucleation can organise the cytoskeleton of Drosophila oocytes to define the anteroposterior axis. Elife 4.10.7554/eLife.06088.

• St Johnston D (2015) The renaissance of developmental biology. PLoS Biol doi: 10.1371/journal.pbio.1002149.

• Lowe N et al. (2014) Analysis of the expression patterns, subcellular localisations and interaction partners of Drosophila proteins using a pigP protein trap library. Development 141(20): 3994-4005.

• Morais-de-Sá E et al. (2014) Slmb antagonises the aPKC/Par-6 complex to control oocyte and epithelial polarity. Development 141(15): 2984-92.

• Gardiol A, and St Johnston D. (2014) Staufen targets coracle mRNA to Drosophila neuromuscular junctions and regulates GluRIIA synaptic accumulation and bouton number. Dev Biol 15;392(2): 153-67.


Plain English

Most cells are polarised, with one end being different from the other. For example, a motor neuron receives inputs into dendrites and transmits these signals down an axon for many centimetres to the other end of the cell, where chemical messengers are released to stimulate muscle contraction. Since polarised cells like neurons perform different functions at each end of the cell, they need to localise the proteins that perform these functions, and this is often achieved by localising the mRNAs from which the proteins are translated.

One of the best examples is provided by the egg of the fruitfly, Drosophila, where the anterior localisation of bicoid mRNA determines where the head will form, and the posterior localisation of oskar mRNA defines where the abdomen develops. Because it is easy to make mutants in Drosophila and the egg is a very large cell, we are using this system to investigate the conserved molecular mechanisms that polarise cells and target mRNAs to the right place.

Although this is basic research, it is relevant to several medical problems. For example, most tumour cells lose polarity, and one of the genes we have characterised is mutated in both spontaneous and inherited cancers.


Edward Allgeyer • Dan Bergstralh • Catia Carvalho Mendes • Jia Chen • Nicole Dawney • Hélène Doerflinger • Weronica Fic • Jackie Hall • Erinn Los • Nick Lowe • Avik Mukherjee • Dmitry Nashchekin • John Overton • Andrew Plygawko • Artur Ribeiro Fernandes • Jenny Richens • Rob Russell • George Sirinakis • Vanessa Stefanak • Vitor Trovisco • Helen Zenner