Fruit fly study helps better understand diseases
Many compare the brains of chimpanzees and humans. Zoology professor Bing Zhang, along with a team of researchers and students, uses flies.
The research was first instigated by Rudolf Bolm, a colleague of Zhang’s, who approached Zhang with the idea. The study looks at the development and function of synapses in the brain, particularly of that in fruit flies, because they share many of their genes with humans.
“They respond to alcohol the same way we respond,” Zhang said. “They respond to cocaine the same way we respond. They process a lot of the basic information in a similar way that we process it.”
Using the system Zhang developed, flies can be used to study diseases such as Alzheimer’s or amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (Lou Gehrig’s disease) in humans. The studies done on the flies can help researchers get a better understanding of how these diseases work, according to Zhang.
For example, with Lou Gehrig’s disease the mind works completely fine, but the motor system does not function properly. The new method allows for a more precise manipulation of small groups of cells, which could help researchers better understand the disease and its causes.
The fundamental focuses of the study are to gain a basic understanding of brain structure and function, and also to look at the clinical implications that the research has.
The hands-on study helps students gain a more thorough understanding and deeper interest for the research.
Zoology senior John Tauber has been highly involved. He studied Fragile X syndrome, a disease which causes mental retardation.
Flies are used to research the cellular and molecular basis of the disorder, Tauber said.
“You learn the process of actually doing the science, not just reading about it in the textbook,” he said.
Zhang praised his students’ contributions to the study.
“I’ll be honest with you, we have the most amazing undergraduates on this campus,” Zhang said. “It is important to highlight the students’ work. They’re not reading books, they are creating new knowledge.”
Lindsey Goodnight, who graduated in 2009, had an extensive role in the study but had never taken genetics or neurobiology prior to beginning it.
“They assigned people to different steps in the lab,” she said. “I took two different kinds of flies and mated them in order to make different crosses.”
She recommends students take advantage of the research opportunities, because, “you learn in a different way in the lab.”
Zoology senior Braedon Collins works on behavioral analysis of the fruit flies. He said the lab helped him gain a better understanding of the material as well.
“It’s not until you try to apply what you’re learning and work it out yourself that you really grasp the material and it becomes knowledge,” Collins said in an e-mail.
Zoology professor John P. Masly, who started research as an undergraduate student and is now a colleague of Zhang, also encourages students to take advantage of the opportunity to be involved in innovative projects like this.
“Getting involved in research gives you hands-on experience and also immerses you in a scientific environment, “ he said. “Dr. Zhang’s discovery is, in some ways, going to revolutionize research in cellular dissection.”