BBS Faculty Member - Maxwell Heiman

Maxwell Heiman

Department of Genetics, HMS
Division of Genetics, Children's Hospital Boston

Harvard Medical School
Center for Life Sciences 14047
3 Blackfan Circle
Boston, MA 02115
Tel: 617-444-9629
Visit my lab page here.

Like gears in a piece of clockwork, cells must fit together precisely to give rise to a functioning organ. Nowhere is this more apparent than in the human brain, where 100 billion neurons and 100 billion glia come together, each acquiring the necessary shapes and cell contacts to ultimately manufacture human consciousness. We want to understand the basic principles underlying how cell shape and cell-cell contacts are specified. For this purpose, we have turned to a set of 302 neurons with a highly predictable anatomy – the simple nervous system of the nematode C. elegans.

From the moment of fertilization in C. elegans, every cell division, cell migration, and cell shape change occurs almost identically in every individual, giving rise to worms that are nearly superimposable with one another. This is a tremendous advantage when trying to understand how cells form organs: in this system, they do it the same way every time. Additionally, they do it quickly – most morphogenesis takes place in a two-hour window in embryogenesis – and, because the embryos are transparent, every cell movement and cell shape change can be directly observed.

We have focused in particular on the sensory neurons and glia in the C. elegans head. How do these neurons extend their long dendrites to the right locations? How do they pair off with the right glial partners? And what mechanisms organize their long processes into well-ordered bundles?

Ultimately, our goal is to define the mechanisms by which every one of these neurons and glia gets its shape and forms the right attachments, and to extend these basic principles to explain how cell shape and cell contacts are specified in other organs, whether it is kidney, gut, heart -- or even our own remarkable brains.

Last Update: 8/10/2016


For a complete listing of publications click here.



Yip ZC and Heiman MG. (2016) Duplication of a single neuron in C. elegans reveals a pathway for dendrite tiling by mutual repulsion. Cell Reports. 15(10):2109-2117.

Gilleland CL, Falls AT, Noraky J, Heiman MG*, and Yanik MF*. (2015) Computer-assisted transgenesis of Caenorhabditis elegans for deep phenotyping. Genetics. 201(1):39-46.

Mizeracka K and Heiman MG. (2015) The many glia of a tiny nematode: Studying glial diversity using Caenorhabditis elegans. WIRES Dev. Biol. 4(2):151-160.

McLachlan IG and Heiman MG. (2013) Shaping dendrites with machinery borrowed from epithelia. Curr. Opin. Neurobiol. 23(6):1005-1010.

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