Research Opportunity: Effect of alcohol consumption during pregnancy on facial development

Contact Name: Murat Maga

Contact Email: maga[at]

Department: Pediatrics


My lab investigates the epigenetic (environmental) factors that influence the genetic control of the facial development. For example, we know that drinking alcohol during pregnancy can trigger a wide range of disorders in the offspring. Among these, fetal alcohol syndrome (FAS) is the most extreme and is diagnosed typically by growth retardation, craniofacial malformations, central nervous system impairment and low head circumference. But not every individual exposed to alcohol during gestation gets full-blown FAS. The reasons for these variable outcomes remain elusive. There are simply too many factors to isolate, e.g. the amount of alcohol consumed, when and how long it is consumed, the influence of maternal age, health and the inherent genetic variation in humans all factor in the outcome.

That’s why my lab uses an animal model of voluntary alcohol consumption during pregnancy to determine and measure changes in the facial growth of mouse embryos and pups. This way we can eliminate most of the confounding factors (such as timing, mixed genetic background and so forth) that contribute to the problem in humans. We use a combination of molecular, computational and quantitative approaches to achieve our goal.

We start by visualizing and quantifying the changes in observable traits, skull and face in this case, by using state-of-the-art 4D imaging. Our imaging is 4D, because the time dimension (i.e. the growth of the individuals) also factors into our analyses. We conduct manual and semi-automated shape analysis on these samples to visualize and measure the difference.

We then collect tissue samples from these individuals to see what it is different about their genetic constitution (such as SNPs) and/or functioning of their genes (as measured by gene expression experiments).

The major aim is to tie these two different sets of observations (phenotypic and genomic) together to paint a more comprehensive picture of how alcohol interferes with genetic programming and the normal development.

There are many kinds of research and training opportunities for all levels of undergraduates. These vary from data organization, to animal husbandry and bench work (microbiology), to 3D image analysis and programming. Biology and CSE students are especially encouraged to apply.

Do not hesitate to contact me via my e-mail with your background, and what is it that you are really interested.


The main requisites are: Being genuinely interested, responsible and communicative as well as the amount of commitment. I usually expect 8-10 hrs/wk for at least 6 months (the longer the better).

My lab is located at the Seattle Children’s Research Institute in downtown Seattle (9th and Steward), not on UW campus.

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