Cohesins, as their name suggests, stick things together. Traditionally, they hold chromosome pairs together as they prepare to split during cell division.

But Dr Julia Horsfield - who heads the Chromosome Structure and Development Group based in the Department of Pathology - has found that cohesins are more than just chromosome glue.

"They can also control the expression of developmental genes, so our new group has been set up to examine this further and see how it can affect things like animal development and cancer."

Cohesin mutations are associated with human developmental disorders such as Cornelia de Lange and Roberts syndromes, which feature several characteristics ranging from distinctive facial features to slow growth and mental retardation.

Horsfield will use a Marsden grant to get a better understanding of the downstream pathways that are affected when chromosome cohesin proteins are damaged or lost.

The group works with tiny zebrafish, a new animal model she has recently introduced to Otago. They will use microarray technology to compare the function of genes in normal zebrafish with those that lack cohesins to see what genes are affected and whether they form a functional pathway.

One of the strengths of the zebrafish as a model is that their embryos develop in a transparent shell and, within 24 hours of fertilisation, the full body pattern of the fish can be seen.

"It is a very good animal for modelling development, because when something goes wrong it is very easy to see," Horsfield says.