We follow the science wherever it leads.

Congenital anomalies caused by prescription drugs

Much is known about genes that are required for normal embryonic development, but how chemicals in the environment influence these genes to cause congenital anomalies (also called birth defects) is less well understood. An estimated 6% of babies worldwide are born with a congenital anomaly (World Health Organization). Using genetic and pharmacologic approaches, we study how prescription drugs cause congenital anomalies at the molecular and cellular levels. We hope that our studies will make prescription drugs safer for pregnant women and reveal new and fundamental insights into human embryonic development.

Congenital anomalies caused by environmental pollution

To understand how exposure to environmental pollutants can cause congenital anomalies, we study the aryl hydrocarbon receptor, a protein that is activated by products released following combustion of wood or fossil fuels. We are interested in how different chemicals cause the aryl hydrocarbon receptor to change its function. How do different ligands, binding to the same protein, cause differences in target gene expression?

Steroids acting at the cell membrane

Steroids, like estrogens and androgens, are small molecules that can slip through the cell membrane and bind to receptors inside the cell’s cytoplasm and nucleus. In 2005, several labs discovered that estrogens can bind to a protein in the cell’s plasma membrane, meaning that steroids can activate receptors on the outside of a cell, without having to enter the cell. We are fascinated by this non-canonical signaling pathway and seek to understand the biological functions of membrane-associated steroid hormone signaling. We discovered that estrogen signaling at the cell membrane increases heart rate in embryos, but has no effect on the development of the gonad. We are also interested in how membrane-associated androgen and progestin signaling influences embryonic development and organ formation.

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