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Heads of Laboratories

Head shot of Ali Brivanlou
Ali H. Brivanlou, Ph.D.
Robert and Harriet Heilbrunn Professor
Laboratory of Stem Cell Biology and Molecular Embryology

A zygote has the potential to form every cell type of the embryo and the adult organism through a process called embryonic induction. Dr. Brivanlou’s ultimate goal is to decipher the molecular circuitry that underlies embryonic induction during vertebrate development, with an emphasis on the nervous system. Toward this aim, he performs comparative studies using amphibian and mammalian model systems, including human embryonic stem cells.

Much of Dr. Brivanlou’s research focuses on the molecular events and cellular interactions that regulate the emergence of key structures in the early embryo. In studies of frogs, for example, Dr. Brivanlou and his colleagues have worked to identify the molecular signals that control neural development and track down the genes that orchestrate those signals. In the course of this research, he has made several influential discoveries, including the unanticipated finding that all embryonic cells will develop into nerve cells, by default, unless they receive signals directing them toward another fate.

Dr. Brivanlou and his research group have studied molecular signals involved in the formation of the eye, heart, pancreas, and other organs. Information obtained from this work, conducted in animal models, has provided a strong foundation for his ongoing research involving human embryonic stem cells. Several years ago, he and his colleagues conducted a genome-wide analysis of gene expression that led to the establishment of a molecular signature for the state of “stemness” in mouse and human embryonic stem cells. Their current work focuses on the molecular dissection of the defining properties of embryonic stem cells — their capacity for self-renewal and their ability to differentiate into a broad range of cell types.

Fundamental studies in the Brivanlou laboratory, while offering insights into human development, may also help to advance the treatment and prevention of many conditions, including cancer, diabetes, neurodegenerative diseases, and developmental disorders. As an international leader in the effort to understand the intricacies of human embryonic stem cells and to harness their therapeutic potential, Dr. Brivanlou has also played a key role in establishing scientific standards for human embryonic stem cell research. In addition, he and his colleagues have derived several human embryonic stem cell lines that became amongst the first lines to be included in the National Registry at the NIH and that are used in laboratories worldwide.

Several collaborations with Rockefeller University physics laboratories have also provided new insight, from the use of quantum dots for in vivo embryonic imaging (with Albert J. Libchaber) to development of new statistical tools for DNA microarray and high throughput proteomic analysis (with Marcelo O. Magnasco). An ongoing collaboration with Rockefeller’s Eric D. Siggia focuses on using a high throughput microfluidic platform, micropatterned control of colony architecture, and optogenetic activation of gene expression to program human embryonic stem cell differentiation toward specific fates by dynamic changes of the signaling landscape and without compromising genetic integrity. Thus, the first steps of stem cell differentiation are being scrutinized using new high-resolution techniques. These data will be organized and developed into a predictive tool to rationally reprogram specialized fates from human embryonic stem cells.


Maîtrise in biochemistry, 1982
Université des Sciences et Techniques du Languedoc

Ph.D. in molecular biology, 1990
University of California, Berkeley


University of California, Berkeley, 1990–1991
Harvard University, 1991–1994


Research Assistant, 1982–1983
University of California, Los Angeles

Research Scientist, 1983–1985
International Genetic Engineering Inc.

Assistant Professor, 1994–1997
Associate Professor, 1997–2000
Professor, 2000–
The Rockefeller University


Irma T. Hirschl/Monique Weill-Caulier Trust Research Award, 1994

National Institutes of Health James A. Shannon Director’s Award, 1994

Searle Scholar, 1995

Klingenstein Fellowship, 1996

Wilson S. Stone Memorial Award, 1996

McKnight Scholar, 1996

Presidential Early Career Award for Scientists and Engineers, 1996


Sorre, B. et al. Encoding of temporal signals by the TGF-β pathway and implications for embryonic patterning. Dev. Cell 30, 334–342 (2014).

Warmflash, A. et al. A method to recapitulate early embryonic spatial patterning in human embryonic stem cells. Nat. Methods 11, 847–854 (2014).

Rosa, A. and Brivanlou, A.H. Synthetic mRNAs: powerful tools for reprogramming and differentiation of human cells. Cell Stem Cell 7, 549–550 (2010).

Lacoste, A. et al. An efficient and reversible transposable system for gene delivery and lineage-specific differentiation in human embryonic stem cells. Cell Stem Cell 5, 332–342 (2009).

Rosa, A. et al. The Mir-430/427/302 family controls mesendodermal fate specification via species-specific target selection. Dev. Cell 16, 517–527 (2009).

Dr. Brivanlou is a faculty member in the David Rockefeller Graduate Program and the Tri-Institutional M.D.-Ph.D. Program.