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'Wishful thinking' gene regulates neural development

February 15, 2002 Two research teams have converged on a novel gene that appears to regulate key aspects of communication between nerve and muscle cells. Knowing the identity and function of these regulatory signals, which have remained largely mysterious until now, will allow researchers to better understand how the nervous system forges important connections during development.

The two research teams one led by Howard Hughes Medical Institute investigator Michael O' Connor and his colleagues -- reported the discovery and characterization of the gene in fruit flies in articles in the February 15, 2002, issue of Neuron. The other team, led by former HHMI investigator Corey Goodman, discovered the same gene via a different route.

Both research teams identified the gene, wishful thinking (wit), by studying the larval neuromuscular junction (NMJ) in the fruit fly Drosophila. The Drosophila NMJ consists of 30 muscle fibers that are attached to 35 neurons. The well-characterized system is a prime model for exploring how muscle growth triggers the growth of its innervating motor neurons that drive muscle contraction.

One of the central features of this increase in neuronal growth is the parallel increase in the number of synapses -- the junctions between the neurons and muscle cells that trigger muscle contraction. Synaptic development also occurs in the brain and elsewhere within the nervous system in both invertebrates and vertebrates.

"It's been pretty clear from a number of experiments that there is some kind of signaling that happens at the neuromuscular junction that coordinates the muscle growth with synapse growth," said O'Connor, who is at the University of Minnesota. "Otherwise, the fly ends up with muscle cells that don't receive enough neurotransmitters to contract properly, or they receive too much and
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Contact: Jim Keeley
keeleyj@hhmi.org
301-215-8858
Howard Hughes Medical Institute
14-Feb-2002


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