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At the Lab Episode 10: The time of our lives

image of Cold Spring Harbor campus from across the harbor with At the Lab podcast logo and portrait of Christopher Hammell

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“You wouldn’t start making the fingernails on an arm until you had started to make the arm.” Sorry for the visual, but that quote, from CSHL Professor Christopher Hammell, really gets to the heart of this week’s podcast. Hear more from Hammell and an unlikely supporting cast as we delve into the timing of biological development.

Read the related story: These worms have rhythm


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Sam Diamond: You’re now At the Lab with ƤƤ. My name is Sam Diamond and this week At the Lab, “The time of our lives.”

SD: “Life moves pretty fast. If you don’t stop and look around once in a while, you could miss it.”

SD: In case you’re unfamiliar, that’s the famous 20th-century philosopher—slash fictional high school student—Ferris Bueller.

Economics Teacher: “Bueller? Bueller?”

SD: Ferris is an expert in stopping to look around at life in action. Here at ƤƤ, developmental biologists are interested in looking at life at its earliest and most fundamental stages. Here’s CSHL Professor Christopher Hammell.

Chris Hammell: Genes are controlled by sets of machinery, and you turn genes on and off. And for developmental biologists, we’re interested in figuring out basically how that sets up the body plan of the organism. One of the things that’s been underappreciated in developmental biology is how timing becomes important for that. So, it really is an intuitive problem. You wouldn’t start making fingernails on an arm until you had started to make the arm.

SD: To get to the bottom of this problem, Hammell is looking closely at a kind of worm known as C. elegans. These worms are the perfect test subjects to study the timing of development, because 1) they only live for about 20 days, and 2) they’re see-through.

SD: Hammell and his collaborators came up with a new imaging technique to capture gene expression as it occurs inside C. elegans. They identified a quartet of molecules that time the animal’s growth stages with a concerto-like precision.

CH: This clock we’ve discovered sets up the cadence of that song of development. It’s a coordinator of the orchestra. It controls when the trombone goes, how loud it gets, and how long the note lasts.

SD: This is the first time that gene expression has ever been captured in real time throughout an animal. But perhaps even more incredible, the mechanism that times C. elegans’ development works a little bit like circadian clocks. You know—the thing we plan our days around.

SD: There’s still a lot of work to be done before we can figure out how our developmental clocks enable us to become complex characters like Ferris Bueller or his best friend Cameron Frye. But you can rest assured our scientists aren’t letting the mysteries of life pass us by. We’re looking at them up close every day.

{Musical excerpt from Ferris Bueller’s Day Off}

SD: Thanks for listening to At the Lab. Please be sure to subscribe wherever you get your podcasts. And visit us at for more fascinating stories like this one. For ƤƤ, I’m Sam Diamond. And I’ll see you next time At the Lab.