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Department of Physiology, Development and Neuroscience



I received my B.A. (1991) and PhD (1995) from the University of Cambridge, where I worked with Janet Heasman and Chris Wylie and identified the first molecular marker for migrating lateral line placodes, in Xenopus. This sparked my interest in the development and evolution of cranial neurogenic placodes and sensory systems. After a year's postdoctoral work with Nicole Le Douarin in Nogent-sur-Marne, France, where I used quail-chick grafting to study the potential of early- versus late-migrating cranial neural crest cells, I spent six years as a postdoc with Marianne Bronner-Fraser at Caltech (Pasadena, CA, USA). While at Caltech, I completed the cranial neural crest cell project and began using the chick ophthalmic trigeminal (opV) placode as a model for sensory neurogenesis. I returned to Cambridge in 2002 to set up my own group in what was then the Department of Anatomy (now PDN). My lab continued to work on opV placode development but also branched out into evolutionary developmental biology, studying a variety of questions relating primarily to the development and evolution of the vertebrate peripheral sensory nervous system from cranial neurogenic placodes and the neural crest. Over the years, we have used a wide range of models including tetrapods (chicken, mouse, axolotl, Xenopus), ray-finned bony fishes (paddlefish, sturgeon, catfish, zebrafish), cartilaginous fishes (shark, skate) and the jawless sea lamprey. Our current focus is the development of lateral line electroreceptors as a model for sensory organ and cell-type diversification in development and evolution.


Neurogenic placodes and the neural crest: development and evolution of the vertebrate peripheral sensory nervous system

Neurogenic placodes and the neural crest are two distinct embryonic cell populations that are crucial for the development of the vertebrate head. Together, they give rise to the whole peripheral nervous system, i.e., all the sensory receptor cells, neurons (nerve cells) and glial cells (nerve-support cells) located outside the brain and spinal cord. Neural crest cells also build much of the craniofacial skeleton.

Neurogenic placodes (paired patches of thickened surface ectoderm in the embryonic head) give rise to the paired peripheral sense organs: the olfactory placodes form the olfactory receptor neurons in the nose that detect smells; the otic placodes form the inner ears, in which fluid movement (due to sound waves or head motion) stimulates mechanosensory hair cells, giving us our senses of hearing and balance; and a series of lateral line placodes forms the lateral line system of fish and aquatic-stage amphibians, in which mechanosensory hair cells (very like those in the inner ear), distributed in lines over the head and flank, detect local water movement for e.g. prey/predator detection and schooling behaviour. Neurogenic placodes also form the hormone-producing cells of the anterior pituitary gland, the eye lenses, and most of the peripheral sensory neurons of the head, collected in discrete cranial sensory ganglia.

Neural crest cells migrate out of the developing brain and spinal cord: they give rise to all the other neurons and all glial cells of the peripheral nervous system, plus a wide variety of other cell types including pigment cells, most of the cartilages and bones of the face and skull, and the dentine-producing cells of teeth.

Development and evolution of electroreceptors

Land vertebrates, as well as frogs and most modern bony fish, have lost one of the most ancient vertebrate senses, the ability to detect weak electric fields in water, used for finding prey and for orientation. Electroreceptors are modified hair cells, distributed in fields of "ampullary organs" on either side of the lateral lines of mechanosensory hair cells. They are found in all major aquatic vertebrate groups, including jawless fish (lampreys), cartilaginous fish (sharks, rays), primitive bony fish (e.g. sturgeon, paddlefish), and even some amphibians (salamanders). Although the ancestors of teleosts (modern bony fish) lost electroreceptors, so that most of these fish cannot detect electric fields, electroreceptors seem to have been independently "re-invented" at least twice in two different groups of teleosts, including catfish and "electric fish". (For more information on vertebrate electroreception, see Map Of Life). Very little is known about electroreceptor development. We are investigating the embryological origins of electroreceptors, and the genes underlying their formation, in a wide range of vertebrate groups including skate, sturgeon, salamander and catfish.

Development of olfactory ensheathing glia

Using grafting techniques in chicken embryos and genetic lineage-tracing in mice, we discovered that olfactory ensheathing cells (OECs, which ensheath and protect olfactory nerve fibres) are derived from the neural crest, like all other peripheral glial cells, and not from the olfactory placodes as previously thought (Barraud et al., 2010, Proc. Natl. Acad. Sci. USA). Excitingly, OECs can promote nerve repair when transplanted into the damaged spinal cord, but it has proved difficult to isolate them in large enough numbers from the nose for effective therapy. Neural crest stem cells persist in adult skin and hair follicles, and it is possible to isolate these stem cells and grow them in the lab. The next step is to work out how to turn these stem cells into OECs: to do this, we need to investigate how this process happens normally in the developing embryo. In recent years we have investigated this question, as well as the role of OECs during the embryonic development of the olfactory system.

Current research team

Martin Minařík (Research Associate)
Christine Hirschberger (BBSRC-funded Research Associate)
Alex Campbell (formerly Anatomical Society-funded PhD student)



Marianne Bronner, Caltech, Pasadena, CA, USA
Jason Gallant, Michigan State University, MI, USA
Andrew Gillis, Marine Biological Laboratory, Woods Hole, MA, USA
Henrik Kaessmann, University of Heidelberg, Germany
Raj Ladher, NCBS, Bangalore, India
David McCauley, University of Oklahoma, OK, USA
Martin Pšenička, University of South Bohemia, Czech Republic
Harold Zakon, UT Austin, TX, USA


Key publications: 

Preprint: Campbell AS, Minařík M, Franěk R, Vazačová M, Havelka M, Gela D, Pšenička M, Baker CVH (2024) Two opposing roles for Bmp signalling in the development of electrosensory lateral line organs. bioRxiv doi:

Minařík M, Modrell MS, Gillis JA, Campbell AS, Fuller I, Lyne R, Micklem G, Gela D, Pšenička M, Baker CVH (2024) Identification of multiple transcription factor genes potentially involved in the development of electrosensory versus mechanosensory lateral line organs. Front. Cell Dev. Biol. 12: 1327924

Preprint: Minařík M, Campbell AS, Franěk R, Vazačová M, Havelka M, Gela D, Pšenička M, Baker CVH (2023) Atoh1 is required for the formation of lateral line electroreceptors and hair cells, whereas Foxg1 represses an electrosensory fate. bioRxiv doi:

Preprint: Gillis JA*, Criswell KE, Baker CVH* (2023) The skate spiracular organ develops from a unique neurogenic placode, distinct from lateral line placodes. bioRxiv doi:  *Joint corresponding authors

Perera SN, Williams RM, Lyne R, Stubbs O, Buehler DP, Sauka-Spengler T, Noda M, Micklem G, Southard-Smith EM, Baker CVH (2020) Insights into olfactory ensheathing cell development from a laser-microdissection and transcriptome-profiling approach. Glia, 68, 2550-2584

Baker CVH (2019) The development and evolution of lateral line electroreceptors: insights from comparative molecular approaches. In 'Electroreception: Fundamental Insights from Comparative Approaches' (ed. BA Carlson, JA Sisneros, AN Popper & RR Fay), pp. 25-62. Cham: Springer

Hockman D, Adameyko I, Kaucka M, Barraud P, Otani T, Hunt A, Hartwig AC, Sock E, Waithe D, Franck MCM, Ernfors P, Ehinger S, Howard MJ, Brown N, Reese J, Baker CVH (2018) Striking parallels between carotid body glomus cell and adrenal chromaffin cell development. Dev. Biol., 444, S308-S324

Rich CA, Perera SN, Andratschke J, Stolt CC, Buehler DP, Southard-Smith EM, Wegner M, Britsch S, Baker CVH (2018) Olfactory ensheathing cells abutting the embryonic olfactory bulb express Frzb, whose deletion disrupts olfactory axon targeting. Glia 66, 2617-31

Hockman D, Burns A, Schlosser G, Gates KP, Jevans B, Mongera A, Fisher S, Unlu G, Knapik EW, Kaufman CK, Mosimann C, Zon LI, Lancman JJ, Dong PDS, Lickert H, Tucker AS, Baker CVH (2017) Evolution of the hypoxia-sensitive cells involved in amniote respiratory reflexes. eLife 6, e21231. [Featured by Stupnikov MR, Cardoso, WV (2017) Sensing oxygen inside and outeLife 6, e27467.]

Modrell MS, Lyne M, Carr AR, Zakon HH, Buckley D, Campbell AS, Davis MC, Micklem G, Baker CVH (2017) Insights into electrosensory organ development, physiology and evolution from a lateral line-enriched transcriptome. eLife 6, e24197

Miller SR, Perera SN, Baker CVH (2017) Constitutively active Notch1 converts cranial neural crest-derived frontonasal mesenchyme and glia to perivascular cells. Biology Open 6, 317-25

Arendt D, Musser JM, Baker CVH, Bergman A, Cepko C, Erwin DH, Pavlicev M, Schlosser G, Widder S, Laubichler MD, Wagner GP (2016) The origin and evolution of cell types. Nature Reviews Genetics 17, 744-57

Piotrowski T, Baker CVH (2014) The development of lateral line placodes: Taking a broader view, Dev. Biol. 389, 68-81

Barraud P, St John JA, Stolt CC, Wegner M, Baker CVH (2013) Olfactory ensheathing glia are required for embryonic olfactory axon targeting and the migration of gonadotropin-releasing hormone neurons, Biology Open 2, 750-759

O'Neill P, Mak S-S, Fritzsch B, Ladher RK*, Baker CVH* (2012) The amniote paratympanic organ develops from a previously undiscovered sensory placode, Nature Communications 3, 1041. doi:10.1038/ncomms2036 *Joint corresponding authors

Gillis JA, Modrell MS, Northcutt RG, Catania KC, Luer CA, Baker CVH (2012) Electrosensory ampullary organs are derived from lateral line placodes in cartilaginous fishes, Development 139, 3142-3146

Modrell MS, Bemis WE, Northcutt RG, Davis MC, Baker CVH (2011) Electrosensory ampullary organs are derived from lateral line placodes in bony fishes, Nature Communications 2, 496. DOI:10.1038/ncomms1502

Barraud P, Seferiadis AA, Tyson LD, Zwart MF, Szabo-Rogers HL, Ruhrberg C, Liu KJ, Baker CVH (2010) Neural crest origin of olfactory ensheathing glia, Proc. Natl. Acad. Sci. U.S.A. 107, 21040-5


All publications on PubMed

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Teaching and Supervisions


Part IA MedST Functional Architecture of the Body

Part IB MedST Head & Neck Anatomy

Part IB MedST Neurobiology and Human Behaviour

Part II PDN module N1 Developmental Neurobiology

Professor of Comparative Developmental Neurobiology
Picture of  Professor Clare  Baker

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