From Drosophila to Man: Discovering How Nerve Cells Connect and Communicate
Who would have thought that the tiny fruit fly, Drosophila, could be the most valuable and effective genetic model organism for teaching us about the molecular mechanisms that govern neuronal connections in the human brain? But that's certainly the case. Most human genes are also found in the genome of the Drosophila and many have been shown to function in a similar way. Furthermore, Drosophila have a short generation time and thus scientists use them so they can study genes over several generations in a less complex biological system.
Fruit flies are Canada Research Chair Dr. Ali Pejmun Haghighi's business. He has combined the genetic tools available in the Drosophila with powerful imaging and neuronal recording techniques to study how the human brain is wired and how billions of nerve cells communicate with each other. In the past, he has worked primarily characterizing genes and the molecular mechanisms that underlie the establishment of neuronal connections at the specialized connecting points called synapses. His post-doctoral research led to the discovery of mechanisms that allow back and forth signalling between neurons at synapses; he demonstrated the balance between positive growth-promoting and negative inhibitory mechanisms controlling the structural and functional maturation of these synaptic connections.
In his current Canada Research Chair program, Dr. Haghighi continues his work on synaptic growth and function. He is using the fruit fly to characterize the function of genes that have been identified in humans with nervous system diseases, hoping to find clues to generating more effective therapeutic tools to tackle these diseases.