Animal Scientist Links Current Success With Events That Shaped Her Past
Friday, Nov. 17, 2017
Professor Irina Polejaeva’s work as an animal scientist–cloning and genetically engineering animals–is focused largely on beginnings. She routinely works with organisms that are just four-to-eight cells, so early in their development the cells haven’t begun to determine what sort of tissue they will become.
Polejaeva’s recent Inaugural Professor Lecture, celebrating her promotion to full professor, illustrated that small things are often the beginnings of big changes.
Polejaeva’s childhood was in Kyzyl, the capitol of Tuva, which was then part of the USSR. It is a region of lakes, forests and mountains south of Siberia on the border with Mongolia. There, Polejaeva spent a lot of time on her grandmother’s farm while her mother and father pursued master’s degrees in engineering and economics, respectively, the first in each of their families to earn advanced degrees. All that time on the farm fostered an interest in animals.
“My grandmother had a small farm with, basically, everything,” Polejaeva said. “She had horses, a cow, sheep and chickens and pigs. It supported the family, and she raised three kids by herself because my grandfather died in the Second World War. She was a very strong woman, and it really started my interest in animals because it was so much fun to be on the farm.”
When she was 10 years old, Polejaeva’s parents moved their family south to Krasnodar to give their children more educational opportunities. Polejaeva earned her MSc degree in animal science at Kubanski Agricultural University, but the next big step on her career path was directed by a book she read while on maternity leave because she was feeling a little bored.
In Russia, maternity leave is typically 3-years long, and 6 months into caring for her daughter, Polejaeva felt the need to read something scientific. The book she found was Mammalian Chimaeras by Anne McLaren, a leading figure in developmental biology and pioneer in embryology. The book’s cover intrigued her because it featured an illustration of a typical chimaera from Greek mythology, a creature with the body of a lion, head of goat and a long tail that ends in a snake’s head. The book was about early work in combining cells from two different kinds of mouse embryos and the resulting mice.
Polejaeva found McLaren’s work fascinating and it launched her pursuit of a PhD in developmental and stem cell biology at the National Institute of Animal Science in Moscow. A post-doctoral position at Utah State University working with Ken White, now dean of the College of Agriculture and Applied Sciences, brought Polejaeva and her family to Utah. She then worked for 15 years in the private sector and helped develop somatic cell nuclear transfer, a technique that creates a clone animal from a donor cell nucleus and was involved in generating the world’s first cloned pig. The cloning process, in short, involves isolating a single cell from an animal with specific desired traits, joining it with an oocyte (egg) that has had its DNA removed, and biochemically mimicking what happens during fertilization to start the process of developing into a new organism.
“That was amazing, and still is to some degree, even to people who are involved in this line of research,” she said. “If you find a text book from before 1996 it would say once a cell has differentiated it is committed to a specific fate, it has become a skin cell, or a muscle cell, it cannot reverse its fate and become embryonic. The dogma of developmental biology was shattered and we learned we could change the fate of a totally differentiated cell.”
Polejaeva returned to USU in 2011 as part of the USTAR Veterinary Diagnostics and Infectious Disease group. Her lab team is busy with research to improve the success rates in cloning animals with very specific traits and using emerging genome-editing technology to produce better animal models of human diseases like cystic fibrosis and atrial fibrillation so that treatments can be found.