Gregg Duester, Ph.D.

Gregg Duester's Research Focus

Birth Defects, Aging-Related Diseases, Vitamin Deficiency

Dr. Duester investigates the genetic regulatory mechanisms controlled by retinoic acid during embryonic development. His laboratory was instrumental in identifying enzymes that allow specific cells to metabolize the nutrient vitamin A (retinol) into an active form, retinoic acid, a potent regulator of gene expression. The tissue-specific location and timing of retinoic acid production during embryogenesis provides intercellular signaling information needed to regulate generation of tissues and organs from stem cells. Dr. Duester has found that mice carrying mutations in Raldh1, Raldh2, Raldh3, and Rdh10 fail to generate retinoic acid in specific regions of the embryo, resulting in defective differentiation of stem cells needed to form the brain/spinal cord, vertebrae, forelimbs, and heart. His laboratory uses knockout mouse genetic models to understand what developmental pathways and genes are regulated by retinoic acid during organogenesis, a process that is very similar in humans and mice. By determining how retinoic acid normally functions as a central regulator of stem cells during organogenesis, his research helps reveal the regulatory logic that drives stem cell differentiation and provides a basis to guide efforts in stem cell manipulations designed to treat human disease or aging through a regenerative medicine approach.

Gregg Duester's Research Report

Retinoic acid (RA) functions as a ligand controlling a nuclear receptor signaling pathway involved in growth and development of vertebrate organisms including humans. RA action requires enzymatic conversion of retinol (vitamin A) to an active ligand (retinoic acid), which can then bind RA receptors in the nucleus. Synthesis of RA from retinol is a two-step process in which alcohol/retinol dehydrogenases (ADH/RDH) perform oxidation of retinol to retinaldehyde, and retinaldehyde dehydrogenases (RALDH) perform oxidation of retinaldehyde to RA. Among the various secreted cell-cell signaling factors that direct developmental processes, RA is unique in that it is a small molecule (M.W. 300) that directly regulates gene transcription by entering the nucleus of target cells and binding to target genes via nuclear receptors. This is in stark contrast to other secreted cell-cell signaling factors, such as fibroblast growth factor (FGF), WNT, transforming growth factor-beta (TGFb), and sonic hedgehog (SHH), which all bind cell-surface receptors and initiate intracellular signaling pathways that regulate transcription in the nucleus. RA signaling appears to be primarily a paracrine pathway as the cells that synthesize RA are not the targets of RA action. 

One major challenge in the study of vitamin A function is to discover when and where RA synthesis occurs during embryogenesis as this provides the ligand that initiates RA signaling. Another challenge is to determine exactly where RA acts when it is released from cells and functions as a signaling molecule. Our studies are also aimed at determining what genes are regulated by RA during formation of specific structures in target tissues, and exploring how RA signaling cooperates with other developmental signaling molecules encoded by Fgf, Shh, TGFb, and Wnt to control morphogenesis in target tissues. Our laboratory has generated RA-deficient mouse mutants that have allowed us to undertake a detailed investigation into the mechanism of RA signaling in order to more fully understand intercellular signaling pathways during development.

Some milestones made by our laboratory:

  • Genetic Identification of Enzymes Controlling Retinoic Acid Synthesis Raldh1, Raldh2, and Raldh3 encode retinaldehyde dehydrogenases essential for oxidation of retinaldehyde to RA. Knockout mice for Raldh1, Raldh2, and Raldh3 lose RA synthesis in specific tissues during embryogenesis resulting in abnormal development. Raldh1-/-, Raldh2-/-, and Raldh3-/- mice as well as compound knockout mice are being used to learn more about the mechanism of RA signaling during development of specific tissues.
  • Retinoic Acid Signaling Does Not Require 9-cis-Retinoic Acid Two isomers of RA were originally thought to function as receptor ligands: all-trans-RA for retinoic acid receptors (RAR) and 9-cis-RA for retinoid X receptors (RXR). However, our Raldh2-/- rescue studies show that 9-cis-RA is not required to correct a lethal defect in RA synthesis as an RAR-specific synthetic ligand can rescue Raldh2-/- embryos. Also, HPLC analyses demonstrate that 9-cis-RA is not detectable in mouse embryos unless treated with high doses of retinoids. 
  • Retinoic Acid Acts as an Instructive Signal for Neural Development During gastrulation, RA synthesized in the somitic mesoderm travels to the adjacent neuroectoderm where it acts as an instructive signal to induce Hoxb1, Hnf1b, and Olig2 needed for development of the hindbrain and spinal cord. This pathway leads to development of hindbrain rhombomeres and facial motor neurons as well as motor neuron differentiation along the spinal cord. 
  • Retinoic Acid Represses FGF8 Expression During Early Organogenesis to Allow Proper Differentiation of Trunk Mesoderm: Limb Buds, Somites and Heart During gastrulation, RA acts as a permissive signal for differentiation of mesoderm by limiting the size of the primitive streak and cardiac Fgf8 expression domains, thus creating an FGF-free zone in between where the trunk develops. RA thus sets the anterior boundary of the primitive streak to allow proper somitogenesis and the posterior boundary of the heart to allow proper heart and forelimb bud development. We hypothesize that failure of this mechanism generates excessive FGF8 signaling to adjacent mesoderm resulting in smaller somites (vertebra precursors) displaying left-right asymmetry, a larger heart domain, and a failure to initiate forelimb budding. 
  • Retinoic Acid Initiates Limb Budding But is Not Required for Limb Patterning Our findings show that RA signaling is not required for limb proximodistal or anteroposterior patterning as originally postulated, but that RA inhibition of FGF8 signaling during the early stages of body axis extension provides an environment permissive for induction of forelimb buds.

Gregg Duester's Bio

Gregg Duester earned his Ph.D. in Microbiology from the Medical College of Virginia in Richmond in 1982. He received postdoctoral training at the University of California at Irvine and worked as Assistant Research Professor at that institution. Dr. Duester was appointed Assistant Professor in the Department of Biochemistry at Colorado State University at Fort Collins; he was recruited to Sanford Burnham Prebys Medical Discovery Institute in 1991.


1982-1985: Postdoctoral Training, University of California, Irvine, Molecular Genetics
1982: Ph.D., Medical College of Virginia, Richmond, Microbiology
1976: B.S., Colorado State University, Fort Collins, Zoology

Honors and Recognition

2006: Outstanding Basic Health Sciences Alumnus Award, Medical College of Virginia
1989-1991: NIH Research Scientist Development Award
1982-1985: NIH Postdoctoral Fellowship Award
1981: John C. Forbes Graduate Student Research Achievement Award

Other Affiliations

Editorial Board for Developmental Biology
Editorial Board for Developmental Dynamics

DAR Accessory


Genomic Knockout of Two Presumed Forelimb Tbx5 Enhancers Reveals They Are Nonessential for Limb Development.

Cunningham TJ, Lancman JJ, Berenguer M, Dong PDS, Duester G

Cell Rep 2018 Jun 12 ;23(11):3146-3151

Mechanisms of retinoic acid signalling and its roles in organ and limb development.

Cunningham TJ, Duester G

Nat Rev Mol Cell Biol 2015 Feb ;16(2):110-23

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