From left to right: James Robinson (Swarthmore Undergraduate), Jim McCarthy (MU undergraduate), Sonal Shah (MU grad student), Anne Terrell (MU Undergraduate), Dr. Cebra-Thomas, Scott Gilbert (Swarthmore professor) Melinda Yin ( high school teacher) Foreground – Tania Doles (Swarthmore undergraduate)

Dr. Judith Cebra-Thomas, associate professor of biology at Millersville University (MU), is researching the evolutionary development of turtles with the assistance of a $507,736 research grant from the National Science Foundation (NSF) Division of Integrative Organismal Systems.

“There are two big goals to my research: understanding how cells ‘choose’ between alternate differentiation pathways to become different types of cells and body structures; and how an alteration in that choice has led to macroevolutionary change,” said Cebra-Thomas.

The grant will allow Cebra-Thomas to conduct cutting-edge research including the gene cataloging technique RNAseq and labeling genes with green fluorescent protein. It will also provide equipment for the biology department including a new polymerase chain reaction (PCR) machine and other machinery that will assist with introducing foreign DNA into the turtle embryos.

“The research funded by the grant will help to explain the mechanism by which cells ‘choose’ their developmental fate from a variety of options and provide insight into how this process can be altered to produce a novel structure such as the turtle shell,” said Cebra-Thomas.

Through studying turtles, supplied by a farm in Louisiana, she looks at embryos and the different bones that develop before hatching. From there, she isolates the shell bones and looks at specific cells called neural crest cells (NCC).  MU students are assisting with her research and have assisted in dyeing the cells to watch how they travel within the turtle during development to track how the shell is formed. They found that the NCCs start in the neural tube, or the embryo’s spinal cord and brain, and travel throughout the body.

Cebra-Thomas has been studying turtle evolutionary development for 15 years and was inspired by the work of Dr. Scott Gilbert, a researcher and biology professor emeritus at Swarthmore College.  For additional information on Cebra-Thomas’ research please visit  her website.




This article has 2 comments

  1. This is wonderful, far-reaching research and provides fantastic experiences for our students. Great work, Dr. Cebra-Thomas!

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