Learning how to think: How stem cells acquire and recall memories

Distinguished Lectures in Life Science

Elaine Fuchs, The Rockefeller University

May 14, 2024 @ 12:00 pm to 01:00 pm

001 Chemical and Biomedical Engineering Building
University Park

According to Webster, memory “is the power or process of reproducing or recalling what has been learned and retained especially through associative mechanisms.” It has generally been thought to be the privilege of the brain, and indeed as most neurons are long-lived, they have the capacity to store memories of their experiences and recall them months later. However many tissues of our body learn from their past experiences, and like memories that occur in the brain, tissue memories have both beneficial and maladaptive consequences. An excellent example of this is our barrier epithelial tissues such as the skin, lung and gut, which are the first line of defense between our body and the outside world. To survive in these harsh environments and continually generate and rejuvenate their tissues, these epithelia must maintain reservoirs of self-renewing stem cells that can produce tissue long-term. When the barrier has been breached, for example by wounding, the stem cells must not only repair the damaged tissue but also call to the immune system to help guard against pathogen entry. All the while the stem cells must protect themselves from a variety of assaults, including not only injury but also mechanical stress, ultraviolet radiation and allergens that stimulate an inflammatory response. How do epithelial stem cells equip themselves to respond to these different stresses? My laboratory discovered that these cells keep memories of their stressful encounters within their chromatin and unleash them upon subsequent encounters. Our discoveries have now been shown to have broad implications across many tissue stem cells, and while evolutionarily advantageous in healing wounds and encountering subsequent pathogens, these epigenetic memories can be maladaptive in cancers and in chronic inflammatory disorders. Our focus is on dissecting the complex interactions that take place between the stem cells and their environment that are optimized for tissue fitness but which become aberrant in times of stress and in disease states. Our findings on the skin reveal remarkable mechanistic parallels to the memories we store in our brain.

About the Speaker:
Elaine Fuchs is renowned for her research in skin biology, its stem cells and associated disorders, including cancers and inflammation, and has published >370 manuscripts. She received her Ph.D. from Princeton, postdoctorate at MIT, and has been faculty at University of Chicago and now Rockefeller University, where she is an Investigator of the Howard Hughes Medical Institute. Her awards include the National Medal of Science, L’Oreal-UNESCO Award, International Society for Stem Cell Research Innovation Award, the Gairdner International Award and most recently the Franklin Medal. Fuchs holds membership in the National Academy of Sciences, National Academy of Medicine, American Philosophical Society, Pontifical Academy of Sciences, and the Royal Society.


Shaun Mahony