In the skin of a reptile

December 20th, 2017

The skin is the body’s largest organ. At the same time, it is also one of the least explored. Skin formation, how it grows and how it develops color patterns, are processes that remain largely a mystery. Michel Milinkovitch, evolutionary developmental biologist and biophysicist at the University of Geneva, is addressing these questions. He compares the development of the skin in different animal species, from mammals to chameleons, snakes and crocodiles. "The genes that control skin appendage development are very similar in all animal species, including humans," says Milinkovitch.  If one of these genes is defective, a reptile might grow without scales, a bird without feathers or a human without hair.

In Milinkovitch's team, biologists, physicists, computer scientists and mathematicians work hand in hand. The team has also developed its own equipment, including a robotic arm which can make very high-resolution, entire-body scans of animals. This allows the researchers to track skin appendage and skin color development in real time. The knowledge gained through research like this might one day be used in medical applications such as the production of artificial skin.

To supplement the film, SystemsX.ch has produced an app that allows users to take a journey through the human body from a systems biology perspective. The app comes in the form of a touchbook that uses text, images, films and games to introduce users to some of the cutting-edge research being undertaken in systems biology.
The app is currently available in English for tablets only (both iPads and Android devices): iTunes store (iPad) & Google Play store (Android)