Northwestern study reveals possible causes of birth defects, miscarriage

Elizabeth Byrne, Assistant Campus Editor

A recent Northwestern study on egg cell production and genetic material in embryos uncovered potential causes of miscarriage and birth defects, the University announced Monday.

Molecular biosciences Prof. Sadie Wignall authored a study, published Sept. 14 in the scientific journal PLOS Genetics, that identified new proteins necessary for the process of egg cell division. According to the release, these proteins help ensure that the correct number of chromosomes end up in each egg cell prior to fertilization.

Research found that if egg cells do not receive the correct number of chromosomes during division, miscarriages or birth defects such as Down Syndrome can occur. Between 10 and 25 percent of embryos have an incorrect number of chromosomes because the egg cell did not divide properly, according to the release.

The study also discovered a “backup” protein that activates when the cell’s original proteins fail to ensure the egg cell is receiving the right number of chromosomes.

This was Wignall’s second study exploring the process of egg cell division. The first was published March 29 in The Journal of Cell Biology. Both studies examine the process of egg cell division, particularly the problem of embryos receiving the wrong number of chromosomes.

Wignall’s research will continue with parallel studies on egg cell division in mice, and the next step will be to study humans, she said in the release.

“Taken together, these two studies have revealed to us how vastly different egg cells are from every other type of cell, which could shed important new light on why the reproductive process can be so error prone,” Wignall said. “Solving this mystery would be a first step to prolonging a woman’s fertile years.”

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