WEST LAFAYETTE, Ind. -- A Purdue University researcher has discovered a gene in fruit flies that may play a key role in regulating the flow of calcium into cells.
Mutations in the gene, called inaF, also appear to suppress the effects of degeneration caused by the overactivity of some calcium channels. The findings may lead to answers to long-standing questions about how these calcium channels work.
The study, published in the Nov. 9 issue of the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, may have long-term implications for treating some degenerative eye and brain diseases, including Alzheimer's, that have been linked to a buildup of calcium in the cell.
In the study, biology Professor William L. Pak and six co-researchers isolated several new strains of genetically mutant Drosophila, or fruit flies, to study how calcium levels are maintained within nerve cells.
The study was conducted on new strains containing mutations in a gene called trp or another gene called inaF.
The trp gene encodes a protein making up the channels in the cell membrane that allow calcium ions to flow into the cell. These channels, called TRP channels, play a critical role in the process by which light signals are converted to nerve signals in the eyes of fruit flies, though the mechanism by which they carry out this process is unknown.
Similar channels, also called TRP channels, have been identified in animals and humans.
The inaF gene, which was identified and named by Pak's group, encodes a protein that appears to play a critical role in the TRP channel's function.
In a group of flies containing mutations in the trp gene, the Pak group identified a new mutation that produced flies with traits different from previously identified trp mutants and caused the flies' photoreceptors to undergo rapid and massive degeneration.