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Why the Fly?

“The greatest value of a picture is when it forces us to notice what we never expected to see.”  ~John W. Tukey

Our research focuses on brain function in health and disease, and we utilize several “model systems” to understand brain function. These include human induced pluripotent stem cells and the common fruit fly, Drosophila melanogaster. So why the fly? In short, it makes the invisible visible.


The goal of medical research is to enhance health by developing new treatments and cures for diseases.  We are still learning much about the human body (particularly the brain), and the paths that lead to major breakthroughs often come from unexpected places. Many revolutionary discoveries in biology, with major implications for human health, came from basic research in invertebrate model organisms such as worms and flies.  One example is the discovery of programmed cell death, or apoptosis, in the roundworm C. elegans. Another is the elegant analysis of the Ras signaling pathway studying the Drosophila eye. These discoveries made major contributions to our understanding of cancer, brain function, and more.

What makes studying invertebrates so effective for dissecting fundamental biological pathways that are critical to human health? The molecular, cellular, developmental, and systemic processes that are key to human diseases are not visible to the naked eye. We need ways to visualize these invisible processes. Animals such as Drosophila and C. elegans have many advantages, which boil down to one key feature - the ability to rapidly dissect what is happening at the [invisible] molecular and cellular signaling levels by observing visible physical features of the animal. They make the invisible visible. Leveraging this advantage, the fruit fly Drosophila has contributed significantly to our understanding of many fundamental biological processes that are relevant to neuroscience. Some of these include:

  • Discovery of the heat shock response and heat shock proteins

  • Dissecting of the mechanisms of circadian rhythms

  • Identification and cloning of Notch

  • Discovery of mitotic recombination

  • Cloning of the first K+ channel (Kv1.3), Shaker

  • Cloning of the first two-pore potassium channel (K2P), dORK

  • Identification and cloning of TRP channels

  • Genetic control of embryonic pattern formation

  • Hox genes and body segmentation

  • Elucidation of the genetic cascades underlying circadian rhythms

  • Identification of genes and signaling underlying learning and memory

  • Characterization of growth cone guidance and cloning of Robo

  • Dissecting Ras signaling and its activation by receptor tyrosine kinases

  • And many more…

To conduct effective translational research, we need sufficient knowledge to develop treatments and bring them to the clinic. Where we don’t have a treatment, the reason is insufficient knowledge. Research in animals such as Drosophila and C. elegans, with their speed, power to yield unexpected breakthroughs, well-mapped neuronal connectivity, and long track record of discoveries directly relevant to human health, is a major foundation for translational research.


“The most exciting phrase to hear in science, the one that heralds new discoveries, is not 'Eureka!' but 'That's funny...'”  ~Isaac Asimov

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