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Scripps Wins $3.2M NIH Grant to Study Drosophila Genes Linked to Learning, Memory

By a GenomeWeb staff reporter

NEW YORK (GenomeWeb News) — The Scripps Research Institute has won a three-year, $3.2 million NIH grant to identify the full spectrum of genes involved in learning and memory in Drosophila, the common fruit fly.

According to Scripps, the research could lead to a number of new therapeutic targets for several major cognitive and neurological disorders, including Alzheimer's disease. The principal investigator for the project will be Ronald Davis, founding chair of the Department of Neuroscience at the institute’s Scripps Florida campus.

Researchers plan to screen about 15,000 RNAi transgenes to cover most of the Drosophila genome. Drosophila RNAi transgenes can inactivate gene function, which will allow the Scripps scientists to systemically analyze specific gene function in a range of tissues. Employing recently developed, genome-wide RNAi transgene libraries of Drosophila genes, the researchers expect to screen more than 90 percent of the genome for genetic functions involved in acquisition, short-term memory stability, long-term memory, and retrieval, Davis said in a statement.

“Our approach will also utilize techniques recently developed in our laboratory to induce transgene expression in neurons of the adult brain,” Davis added. “This approach will allow us to identify the spectrum of genes across the Drosophila genome involved in learning, stabilizing, and retrieving information about odors – the most commonly studied learning process in fruit flies.”

Drosophila learning genes have long been considered test genes for understanding human brain disorders, since the genes underlie specific behavior. One Drosophila gene known as dunce helped researchers learn that the human form of the gene is a serious risk factor for schizophrenia. Another gene, Nf1, which underlies the human genetic disorder neurofibromatosis type 1, has been found to play a role in cognition in both humans and flies.

“We’re still early in the process of making connections between Drosophila memory and learning genes and the pathology of human disease,” Davis said, “but it’s already clear that many of these genes will provide potentially important insight into human brain disorders.”

As research progresses, Davis plans to construct a website to make the results of these new screens more widely available, the institute said.

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