Having investigated anatomy and mammalian development for much of her career, Claudia Gerri understood more about her own pregnancy than most, she says. The developmental biologist, who gave birth to her first child in the summer of 2022, took pride in pointing out parts of her belly to friends and family and explaining what was happening inside. “I would worry because if you know about it, you know what can go wrong,” she says. “But at the same time, when I was reading about how the placenta develops, I was thinking that what was happening inside of me was very exciting.”
Gerri hadn’t always been so intrigued by the changes that take place during mammalian pregnancies. Back in high school, she wasn’t particularly passionate about anything—until she took a biology class and became captivated by cells and how they proliferate. “I had this revelation,” Gerri says. “I was very interested in understanding how we get from one cell to an entire organism.”
Studying biology as an undergraduate at the University of Milan in Italy, Gerri ultimately cultivated an interest in comparative anatomy and developmental biology. She received a master’s degree in molecular biology of the cell from the University of Milan and the University of Brescia in 2012 before beginning a PhD with developmental biologist Didier Stainier at the Max Planck Institute for Heart and Lung Research in Germany the same year.
There, Gerri studied vascular development in zebrafish, examining transcription factors that respond to low oxygen in zebrafish cells. Her discoveries laid an important foundation for others to build on, Stainier says, and the work won Gerri the prestigious Otto Hahn medal in 2018. “I can only use superlatives when I talk about her,” Stainier says.
Following her PhD, Gerri wanted to continue working on cell development during her postdoc, but with a focus on comparative anatomy and embryogenesis. She joined the lab of Kathy Niakan at the Francis Crick Institute in London in 2017 and there studied embryonic development across humans, cows, rats, and mice in the days immediately following fertilization. To her surprise, although embryogenesis in humans, cows, and rats shares similar molecular mechanisms, in mice the formation of the placenta turned out to follow a slightly different path. Gerri still doesn’t understand why, but the information is nonetheless valuable for translating mouse research to humans.
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Much about the placenta—such as why it assumes different shapes in different species, or how the cells of the mother and the fetus communicate with one another—remains unknown, and Gerri says she decided to investigate the maternal-fetal interface across several mammals. “The more I study, the more I see that we don’t really know why the placenta is so different,” she tells The Scientist.
In 2021, Gerri applied to launch her own lab at the Max Planck Society. Of the hundreds of applicants that year, Gerri stood out from the start, says Marino Zerial, a cell biologist and the managing director of the Max Planck Institute for Molecular Cell Biology and Genetics (MPI-CBG), who was part of the panel that judged Gerri’s application. She began setting up her lab at MPI-CBG in 2022.
“She was striking because of her vision about the project she was proposing,” Zerial says, particularly her suggestion to use a combination of placenta organoids and embryos to study development. Although the early stages of placental development are easy to study using cultivated animal embryos, keeping a fetus alive in culture isn’t possible in later stages. Organoids will enable a more specific look at development mechanisms than if she were using cell lines, he adds.
“With luck, she should be leading the forefront of this particular field very quickly,” Stainier says.