Neurogenetics for all

On Aug. 1, the National Science Foundation announced 17 Next Generation Networks for Neuroscience (NeuroNex) awards for projects that will yield innovative ways to tackle the mysteries of the brain.

A team from Washington University in St. Louis and the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign was awarded $2.6 million to develop a simplified genetic toolkit that will allow scientists who study animal behavior to test hypotheses about its neural underpinnings. The Washington University award is intended to establish a NeuroNex Technology Hub that will develop and disseminate innovative neurotechnology.

Yehuda Ben-Shahar, the project’s principal investigator and associate professor of biology in Arts & Sciences, said much of what we know about the connections between behavior and the brain is derived from work with just four species: the fruit fly, mouse, roundworm and zebrafish.

As science has progressed, hard-core neuroscience and ethology (the study of animal behavior) have drifted apart. “Fewer scientists trained as ethologists would consider testing a hypothesis or model by genetic manipulation,” Ben-Shahar said, “because they’re not trained in the techniques, and there are all sorts of real and imaginary barriers to adopting them.”

So the goal of his team is to devise a simple approach that can be used to produce animal lines that would readily accept transgenes (foreign genes) and to teach organismal biologists how to use it.

In proof-of-principle demonstrations, his team will insert a gene into the olfactory neurons of locusts and honeybees that will allow researchers to watch the response to odors. Although they are starting with insects, the ultimate goal, Ben-Shahar said, is a flexible set of tools that scientists can easily tailor for any purpose and any animal.

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