Biologist Michael Levin Joins Tufts University

November 17, 2008

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MEDFORD/SOMERVILLE, Mass. – Michael Levin, an internationally recognized researcher who previously headed the Center for Regenerative and Developmental Biology at The Forsyth Institute and was associate professor of developmental biology at Harvard School of Dental Medicine, has been named professor of biology at Tufts University. Levin received his B.S. from Tufts in 1992. 

"Michael Levin represents a unique hire for the School of Arts & Sciences," said Dean of Arts & Sciences Robert Sternberg. "His interests cross many fields, including biology but also engineering, computer science, neuroscience and medicine. He represents the kind of distinguished interdisciplinary scholar who characterizes the essence of what makes Tufts a truly special place. We are delighted to welcome Michael back to the university."

The opportunity to break through traditional boundaries to work with other leading-edge researchers attracted Levin back to Tufts. "Our research brings together psychology, computer science, engineering, physics, and health sciences as well as biology, and I wanted greater opportunity for cross-disciplinary collaboration," said Levin. "I was already partnering successfully with Tufts researchers in biomedical engineering and biology and wanted to expand those efforts."

Levin has brought 15 researchers with him to form the Tufts Center for Regenerative and Developmental Biology. The group, including Research Associate Professor Dany Adams and five post-doctoral fellows, will continue study of embryonic asymmetry, biomedical control of regeneration, and information storage in cells and organs. (See http://www.drmichaellevin.org.)

Levin is widely recognized for his advances in left-right asymmetry and in bioelectrical controls of pattern formation -- how living things know what shape they are supposed to be and how their bioelectrical language can be used to control cell behavior. His more recent research focuses on how living systems learn and store information in cells and tissue outside the brain. In 2004, the journal Nature celebrated his work on left-right asymmetry as a "milestone in developmental biology in the last century."

Prevention, detection, and repair of birth defects and the detection of cancer cells before they become tumors are among the many applications of his work. What steers normal embryonic development from birth defects or normal tissue growth from cancer? Many are asking these questions, but Levin takes unconventional approaches to seeking answers. 

He departs from today's almost universal focus on studying stem cells and chemical signals among cells in favor of plumbing the depths of adult body cells and living organisms' natural bioelectric signals. The current emphasis on studying stem cells and biochemical factors has, Levin says, held back the development of important new approaches to understanding and controlling tissue growth and patterning.   He believes that a promising alternative is to study complex systems that already know how to regenerate and learn to rationally modulate growth and shape by providing bioelectrical and other patterning signals.

"We know that a number of animal species can regenerate large portions of their bodies as adults; it is imperative to learn how these processes occur in order to be able to induce regeneration of damaged tissues in people," he says. Mammals have extensive regenerative ability, notes Levin, pointing to deer that each year grow a new mass of bone, blood vessels and velvet for antlers.

Levin and his colleagues have shown that it is possible to control regenerative tissue by regulating ion flows within the living organism. His lab has demonstrated that if the tails of tadpoles are amputated at times when they normally would not regenerate, they can be induced to regenerate a complete appendage (including spinal cord and muscle) by providing proteins that control cellular voltage levels in the wound. His research has also shown that body cells in tadpoles can be induced to become eyes, while his work with planaria is uncovering how memories are stored and processed during regeneration of the head. In the future he envisions artificially modulating the bioelectric properties of wounds to achieve limb regeneration, a project on which he is collaborating with David Kaplan, chair of biomedical engineering at Tufts' School of Engineering.  

Recent Hires Advance Tufts Biology and Life Sciences Programs

Levin’s appointment underscores Tufts’ success in advancing its biology and other life sciences programs.

"With Michael Levin’s arrival, Tufts adds to the vibrant core of the Department of Biology another scientist who will promote collaboration in unique and exciting ways across multiple fields and schools," said Academic Dean for Arts & Sciences Andrew McClellan. "His research complements the work of other recent, similarly strong biology appointments such as Sergei Mirkin, Mitch McVey and Catherine Freudenreich, who are advancing understanding of DNA replication and repair, as well as neurobiologist Barry Trimmer."

In October 2008, Levin and collaborators at Tufts and Tuebingen Universities published research in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences that showed that electric signals are a powerful regulator of cell behavior. The scientists, who included Tufts Professor of Biology Barry Trimmer, were able to trigger a cancer-like response in embryonic frog cells by disrupting a natural bioelectrical mechanism in the cells.

Levin has published extensively and has received significant funding from federal and non-federal sources, including the National Institutes of Health, National Science Foundation, American Cancer Society, American Heart Association, March of Dimes and U.S. Department of Transportation. He majored in computer science and biology at Tufts in 1992 and received his Ph.D. from the Harvard Medical School in 1996.

Tufts University, located on three Massachusetts campuses in Boston, Medford/Somerville, and Grafton, and in Talloires, France, is recognized among the premier research universities in the United States. Tufts enjoys a global reputation for academic excellence and for the preparation of students as leaders in a wide range of professions. A growing number of innovative teaching and research initiatives span all campuses, and collaboration among the faculty and students in the undergraduate, graduate and professional programs across the university is widely encouraged