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Dernburg Lab

University of California, Berkeley

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Research Interests

Our group investigates chromosome organization and dynamics. We focus on meiosis, the specialized cell division process that gives rise to reproductive cells such as sperm, eggs, pollen, and spores. Meiotic errors underlie many human birth defects such as Down Syndrome, and also contribute to human infertility, especially in older women. Successful meiosis requires a unique series of chromosome interactions: each chromosome must pair with its homologous partner, and these paired chromosomes then exchange genetic information through homologous recombination. Crossover recombination gives rise to genetic diversity, and also creates physical links between chromosomes that enable them to segregate away from each other. We investigate these mechanisms using the nematode Caenorhabditis elegans as our primary model organism. This experimental system has enormous experimental advantages, including rapid and powerful genetics, robust genome editing, outstanding cytology, and the opportunity to directly observe meiosis through in vivo imaging. We are also studying the evolution and plasticity of meiosis by comparing these events in C. elegans to other nematodes, such as Pristionchus pacificus.

Chromosome architecture and dynamics

During meiosis chromosomes undergo remarkable and dynamic reorganization. A hallmark of meiotic entry is the reorganization of each replicated chromosome into a linear array of loops anchored to a central axis, which regulates many aspects of meiosis. We have characterized the molecular organization and function of chromosome axes through diverse biochemical and structural approaches, including crystallography (in collaboration with the laboratory of Kevin Corbett, UCSD/LICR) and superresolution microscopy (with Michal Wojcik and Ke Xu, UC Berkeley). Meiotic chromosomes also interact with molecular motors in the cytoplasm via a "LINC" complex, which enables them to move rapidly along the nuclear surface. By directly imaging these movements in living animals, we learned how they accelerate chromosomes' ability to find their partners and regulate their interactions with other chromosomes. In many organisms this movement is mediated by telomeres, the special repetitive DNA sequences at the ends of chromosomes, but in C. elegans this role has been acquired by "pairing centers," broad regions near one end of each chromosome that span hundreds of kilobases. We defined the molecular requirements for pairing center function and continue to investigate their roles in meiotic dynamics and regulation.

Phase separation and crossover signaling

A longstanding mystery about meiosis is how each pair of chromosomes undergoes at least one crossover, while the total number of crossovers is usually quite low. Indeed, in C. elegans, as in many other species, one and only one crossover occurs between each pair of homologs. Recent evidence has indicated that the synaptonemal complex (SC), a special polymer that assembles between paired chromosomes, plays an important role in this crossover control. Through live imaging in C. elegans, we discovered that the SC behaves as a unique, liquid crystalline compartment. We are exploring how this unusual material self-assembles through phase separation, and how it regulates meiotic recombination. We have identified biochemical signals and a conformational switch within this compartment that regulate crossover formation. Insights into this compartmentalized signaling mechanism are illuminating how cells make a variety of switch-like, spatially localized decisions.


Meiosis underlies the evolution of eukaryotes, and is also shaped by evolution, showing fascinating variation in the details of its execution. For example, in many organisms the process of meiotic homolog pairing depends on recombination machinery, but C. elegans is among the known exceptions to this rule. To better understand how evolution can rewire meiotic regulation, we are developing another nematode known as Pristionchus pacificus, an emerging satellite model organism, for molecular analysis of meiosis. By comparing how this process works in two different nematodes (C. elegans and P. pacificus), we are uncovering core aspects of meiotic regulation that are shared across eukaryotes, and exploring how novel mechanisms such as recombination-independent pairing have emerged in specific lineages.

Tool development

New insights in biology are driven by novel technologies. In particular, advances in fluorescence microscopy, DNA sequencing, genome editing, and mass spectrometry have enabled our lab to answer longstanding questions. Future advances will continue to influence our research directions. While our research group focuses on hypothesis-driven projects rather than methods development, we also work to expand our experimental toolbox through collaboration and innovation. For example, we developed methods for long-term in vivo imaging of adult C. elegans, which has enabled us to probe the dynamics of chromosome movement and synaptonemal complex assembly. We also adapted the auxin-inducible degradation (AID) system for use in C. elegans. This method enables rapid, robust protein depletion in response to an inexpensive, nontoxic small molecule, and also makes it possible to create more complex strains than we could using conventional loss-of-function alleles. We welcome potential researchers who are interested in applying cutting-edge tools to the study of chromosome organization.

Lab Members

I am studying the mechanisms of chromosome pairing and synapsis during meiosis in Pristionchus pacificus. By comparing this process to C. elegans, I am illuminating the evolution of sexual reproduction across eukaryotic lineages. Renzo AdilardiRenzo Adilardi
Postdoctoral Researcher
My research in the lab focuses on gaining a mechanistic understanding of meiotic processes that shape genetic variation and the environmental factors that affect them. I am interested in nematode diversity and the valuable insight that comparative studies of meiosis can provide. Taniya KaurTaniya Kaur
Postdoctoral Researcher
I would like to elucidate how chromosomes pair and initiate SC after pairing. I am interested in using synthetic tools to reconstitute and manipulate chromosome pairing in C. elegans and D. melanogaster. Hyung Jun KimHyung Jun Kim
Graduate Student
My goal is to understand how the interactions between chromosomes, the nucleoskeleton, and the cytoskeleton contribute to homologous synapsis during meiosis. Chenshu LiuChenshu Liu
Life Sciences Research Foundation Fellow
I am defining the molecular composition of the synaptonemal complex using proximity-labeling methods, and working to reconstitute this dynamic material in vitro. Fan WuFan Wu
Postdoctoral Researcher
By investigating the molecular mechanisms underlying crossover regulation, I hope to learn how these pathways contribute to chromosome mis-segregation and aneuploidy. Liangyu ZhangLiangyu Zhang
Postdoctoral Researcher

Postdoctoral Scholars

    Weston Stauffer
    Zhouliang Yu
    Gina Caldas
    Scientist, Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory
    Baris Avsaroglu
    Postdoctoral Scholar, University of California, San Francisco
    Yumi Kim
    Assistant Professor, John Hopkins University
    Christina Whittle
    Head of Analytics, NerdWallet
    Ofer Rog
    Assistant Professor, University of Utah
    Joshua Bayes
    Product Manager, Delta Dental of California
    Chitra Kotwaliwale
    Senior Global Product Manager, Agilent Technologies
    Anne Allison
    Sara Jover Gil
    Assistant Professor, Miguel Hernández University of Elche
    Berith Isaac
    Needhi Bhalla
    Associate Professor, University of California, Santa Cruz

Graduate Students

    Christina Glazier
    Manager, BioMarin Pharmaceutical, Inc.
    Ericca Stamper
    Postdocotral Resarcher, University of Cambridge
    Aya Sato
    Postdoctoral Resarcher, Kyoto University
    Nicola Harper
    Instructor/Senior Research Associate, University of Oregon
    Ekaterina Zelenova
    Jacqueline Chretien
    Team Manager, Research Square
    Roshni Kasad
    Director, AnitaB.org

Trainees, Interns, Etc.

    Hoang Pham
    Lab Manager, University of California, Berkeley
    Regina Bohn
    Lab Manager, University of California, Davis
    John Wang
    Medical Student, Duke University School of Medicine
    Sabrina Lin
    Research Assistant, SyntheX
    Kiana Moi
    Research Associate, Illumina
    Shyanne Amoyo
    Zoe Lung
    Ariel Galor
    Laura Baldwin
    Graduate Student, University of California, Berkeley
    Jannes Hopman
    Graduate Student, University of Groningen
    Kayla Baskevitch
    Research Associate, University of California, San Francisco
    Leticia Meza
    Graduate Student, University of California, Riverside
    Amogh Jalihal
    Graduate Student, Virgina Tech
    Jiangze Huang
    Software Engineer, Tableau Software
    Gilbert Garcia
    Graduate Student, University of California, Berkeley
    Elisa Wasson
    Graduate Student, Virginia Tech
    Christine Tartaglia
    Quality Engineer, Nypro
    Kimberly Pham
    Rebecca Park
    Graduate Student, Stanford University
    Yunshu Fan
    Graduate Student, University of Pennsylvania
    Christina Welch
    Edward Jung
    Scientist, Aerospace Corporation
    Dinara Azimova
    Graduate Student, University of California, San Francisco
    James Xing
    Bisrat Debebe
    Graduate Student, Imperial College London
    Thanh Tran
    Pan Hu
    Sarah Afzal
    Medical Student, Chicago Medical School
    Zoe Assaf
    Senior Bioinformatician, Natera
    David Zhang
    Resident, Icahn School of Medicine at Mt. Sinai
    Miles Pfaff
    Resident, School of Medicine at University of California, Los Angeles
    Alfonso Farrugio
    Postdoctoral Fellow, Stanford University
    Chihunt Wong
    Clinical Scientist, Immune Design
    Christie Chang
    Curator, BioGrid

Selected Publications

Interested in joining us?

If you are interested in joining our research group, please write directly to Abby Dernburg. We welcome highly motivated postdoctoral scholars with expertise in cell biology, genome biology, biophysics, and affiliated fields. Most of our Ph.D. students come through the UC Berkeley graduate program in Molecular and Cell Biology, or the Biophysics Graduate Group. We encourage interested undergraduates to apply to the Undergraduate Research Apprenticeship Program, although we do occasionally take students through direct applications.