Fly brains provide new insights into the growth and development of human nerve cells

An international research team has identified the specific genes that control the growth and development of brain cells in fruit flies. The discovery could have applications well beyond the insect world, providing new insights into human nerve cell development and the treatment of neurological diseases in people.

Scientists from Stanford and the Research Institute of Molecular Pathology (IMP) in Vienna, Austria, report their findings in the March 28 issue of the journal, Nature. In a companion paper, the authors demonstrate how the same genes that control nerve cell growth also affect embryo development in fruit flies.

Rac genes

The Nature studies focus on Rac genes, which are found in the DNA of all animals as well as people. In fact, Rac genes produce a class of proteins called Rac GTPases, whose molecular structure is virtually identical in a wide range of organisms from fruit flies to humans.

Rac GTPases long have been suspected to play a role in brain development, notes Liqun Luo, assistant professor of biological sciences at Stanford and co-author of the two Nature papers.

In our study, we unequivocally demonstrate the importance of Rac GTPases in the growth, guidance and branching of axons fibrous extensions that nerve cells send out to make connections with other nerve cells, says Luo, who also serves on Stanfords Neurosciences faculty.

While fruit flies may seem like simple organisms, Luo points out that a typical fruit fly brain is an extraordinarily complex organ consisting of an intricate network of some 100,000 neurons. For the brain to be wired properly, each neuron must grow, bend and branch in a specific location and direction.

Neuroscientists have determined that neuronal growth, guidance and branching occur in discrete steps. During the growth phase, the neuron sends out an axon, which conducts messages away from the cell, and several dendrites, which carry impulses back to

Contact: Mark Shwartz
Stanford University

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