Start signal for sex cell creation

Start signal for sex cell creation
Greta Friar | Whitehead Institute
February 27, 2019

Cambridge, MA — Cells can divide and multiply in two ways: mitosis, in which the cell replicates itself, creating two copies identical to the original; or meiosis, in which the cell shuffles its DNA and divides twice, creating four genetically unique cells, each with half of the original cell’s number of chromosomes. In mammals, these latter cells become eggs and sperm.

How do germ line cells, the repository of cells that create eggs and sperm, know when to stop replicating themselves and undergo meiosis? Researchers had been aware that a protein called STRA8, which is only active in germ line cells, was involved in initiating meiosis, but they did not know how. New research from Whitehead Member and Institute Director David Page, also a professor of biology at Massachusetts Institute of Technology and an investigator with Howard Hughes Medical Institute; Mina Kojima, formerly a Massachusetts Institute of Technology graduate student and now a postdoctoral researcher at Yale; and visiting scientist Dirk de Rooij has revealed that in mice, STRA8 initiates meiosis by activating and amplifying a network of thousands of genes. This network includes genes involved in the early stages of meiosis, DNA replication, and other cell division processes. The research was published in eLife on February 27, 2019.

In the past, researchers have had difficulty collecting enough cells on the cusp of meiosis to investigate STRA8’s role. In mammals, germ line cells are inside the body, difficult to access, and they begin meiosis in staggered fashion so few cells are at the same stage during an extraction. Researchers in Page’s lab had previously come up with an approach to solve this problem using developmental synchronization, manipulating the cells’ exposure to the chemical that triggers their development in order to prompt all of the cells to begin meiosis simultaneously. Once the cells were synced up, first author Kojima could get a large enough sample to observe patterns in gene expression leading up to and during meiosis, and to figure out where STRA8 is binding.

She found that STRA8 binds to the regulatory portions of DNA called promoter regions, which initiate or increase transcription of adjacent genes, of most critical meiosis genes. With some exceptions, STRA8 does not switch genes from off to on. Rather, genes in the STRA8-regulated network are already expressed at low levels and STRA8 binding massively ramps up their production. The researchers posit that meiosis is then initiated once the genes reach a threshold of expression. This finding sheds light on instances in previous studies in which researchers found meiosis-related genes active in cells not yet undergoing meiosis.

The researchers were surprised to find that STRA8 also amplifies many genes involved in mitosis. However, they suggest that the meiosis-specific genes activated by STRA8 take precedence in determining which of the two cell-cycle processes the cell will undergo. STRA8 regulates certain critical genes, such as Meioc and Ythdc2, which help to establish a meiosis-specific cell-cycle program.

This research enriches our understanding of the process of sexual reproduction. Identifying the expansive STRA8-regulated network has elucidated the start of meiosis: the moment a cell commits to recombining and dividing, relinquishing its genetic identity for the chance to create something — or someone — new.

This work was supported by the National Science Foundation and the Howard Hughes Medical Institute.


Written by Greta Friar


David Page’s primary affiliation is with Whitehead Institute for Biomedical Research, where his laboratory is located and all his research is conducted. He is also a Howard Hughes Medical Institute Investigator and a Professor of Biology at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.


Full citation:

“Amplification of a broad transcriptional program by a common factor triggers the meiotic cell cycle in mice”

eLife, February 27, 2019,

Mina L. Kojima (1,2), Dirk G. de Rooij (1), and David C. Page (1,2,3)

1. Whitehead Institute, 455 Main Street, Cambridge, MA 02142, USA

2. Department of Biology, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Cambridge, MA 02142, USA

3. Howard Hughes Medical Institute, Whitehead Institute, Cambridge, MA 02142, USA