Epithelial tissues are specialized to perform any of several functions: They can be protective, like the skin, which shields the body from the environment. They can be absorptive, like the lining of the intestine, which takes up nutrients from the lumen. They can be secretory, like glands that discharge hormones into the bloodstream.
All these functions rely on tissue impermeability; a leaky tissue can’t form a protective barrier or regulate the transport of factors like nutrients and hormones. The cells that make up epithelial tissues are therefore tightly packed together. This arrangement must somehow be maintained even though individual cell behaviours, in particular division, can be disruptive to the local environment. (One could imagine this as a brick wall not only having to make space for more bricks, but also managing to do it without letting any air pass through.)
A failure in epithelial tissue permeability might not only disrupt function. Disorganization is also suspected to facilitate cancer. The importance of this possiblity is underscored by the finding that 80-90% of all human tumors derive from epithelial cells.
The Bergstralh lab is therefore interested in two big questions: Firstly, how is epithelial integrity established and maintained? Secondly, what happens when it isn’t?
We are using multiple model systems, including Drosophila melanogaster and cultured mammalian intestinal organoids, to address these questions.