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Geneticists show ripple effects of gene mutations

When a plane arrives late to an airport, it affects more than just the frustrated passengers on the tardy plane the ripple effects could throw the entire day's timetable off schedule.

Similarly, in a new study, North Carolina State University geneticists have found that changes to genes regulating olfactory behavior in the fruit fly Drosophila melanogaster, a popular insect model for genetics, have far greater implications than previously appreciated.

The study is presented in a paper published in the Sept. 7 online edition of Nature Genetics.

Dr. Robert Anholt, professor of zoology and genetics, director of NC State's Keck Center for Behavioral Biology and the paper's lead author, said that in the study of how genes affect behavior, the days of thinking about genes in a linear fashion are over.

"In the past, scientists would make a mutation or a change in the genetic information in a gene, observe the effect on behavior and say that the particular gene is essential for a particular behavior," he said. "But when you perturb a gene, you do not just perturb a gene. You create, instead, an effect like the ripples produced when you throw a pebble into a pond. We need to think in terms of networks that generate behavior."

The study breaks new ground because it enabled the scientists to quantify the extent of the ripples in the genome that affect behavior, Anholt said.

In previous studies, the scientists introduced little pieces of DNA, or transposons, randomly into the genome. "If the transposons insert in a regulatory region of a gene, or inside a gene, they disrupt the function of the gene," Anholt said.

Anholt's lab studied olfactory behavior because it can be readily measured and is essential for survival. The investigators isolated a series of smell-impaired flies that were genetically identical but with one particular disrupted gene, and showed enhanced effects when these genes interacted.

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Contact: Dr. Robert Anholt
robert_anholt@ncsu.edu
919-515-1173
North Carolina State University
8-Sep-2003


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