Why Flies and Humans Freeze When Startled
Posted on by Dr. Francis Collins
When faced with something unexpected and potentially ominous, like a sudden, loud noise or a threat of danger, humans often freeze before we act. This is colloquially referred to as the “deer in the headlights” phenomenon. The movie of fruit flies that you see above may help explain the ancient origins of the “startle response” and other biomechanical aspects of motion.
In this video, which shows a footrace between two flies (Drosophila melanogaster), there are no winners or losers. Their dash across the screen provides a world-class view of the biomechanics of walking in these tiny, 3 millimeter-long insects that just won’t sit still.
The fly at the top zips along at about 25 millimeters per second, the normal walking speed for Drosophila. As a six-legged hexapod, the fly walks with a “tripod gait,” alternating between its stance phase—right fore (RF), left middle (LM), and right hind (RH) —and its swing phase sequence of left fore (LF), right middle (RM), and left hind (LH).
The slowpoke at the bottom of the video clocks in at a mere 15 millimeters per second. This fly’s more-tentative gait isn’t due to an injury or a natural lack of speed. What is causing the delay is the rapid release of the chemical messenger serotonin into its nervous system, which models a startle response.
You may have already heard about serotonin because of its role in regulating mood and appetite in humans. Now, a team led by Richard S. Mann and Clare Howard, Columbia University’s Zuckerman Institute, New York, has discovered that fruit flies naturally release serotonin to turn on neural circuits that downshift and steady the speed of their gait.
As detailed recently in Current Biology , serotonin is active under myriad conditions to tell flies to slow things down. For example, serotonin helps flies weather the stress of extreme temperatures, conserve energy during bouts of hunger, and even walk upside down on the ceiling.
But the research team, which was supported by the NIH-led Brain Research through Advancing Innovative Neurotechnologies® (BRAIN) Initiative, found that serotonin’s most-powerful effect came during an actual startle response, prompted by a sudden, jolting vibration. Scientists suspect the release of serotonin activates motor neurons much like an emergency brake, stiffening and locking up the fly’s leg joints. When the researchers blocked the fly’s release of serotonin, it interrupted their normal startle response.
In years past, such a detailed, high-resolution “action video” of Drosophila, one of the most-popular model organisms in biology, would have been impossible to produce. Fruit flies are tiny and possess extremely high energy.
But a few years ago, the Mann lab developed the approach used in this video to bring the hurried gait of fruit flies into tight focus . Their system combines an optical touch sensor and high-speed video imaging that records the footfalls of all six of a fly’s feet.
Then, using the lab’s unique software program called FlyWalker , the researchers can extract various biomechanical parameters of walking in time and space. These include step length, footprint alignment, and, as the letters in the video show, the natural sequence of a tripod gait.
Drosophila may be a very distant relative of humans. But these ubiquitous insects that sometimes buzz around our fruit bowls contain many fundamental clues into human biology, whether the area of research is genetics, nutrition, biomechanics, or even the underlying biology of the startle response.
 Serotonergic Modulation of Walking in Drosophila. Howard CE, Chen CL, Tabachnik T, Hormigo R, Ramdya P, Mann RS. Curr Biol. 2019 Nov 22.
 Quantification of gait parameters in freely walking wild type and sensory deprived Drosophila melanogaster. Mendes CS, Bartos I, Akay T, Márka S, Mann RS. Elife. 2013 Jan 8;2:e00231.
Brain Research through Advancing Innovative Neurotechnologies® (BRAIN) Initiative (NIH)
Mann Lab (Columbia University’s Zuckerman Institute, New York)
MouseWalker Colored Feet (YouTube)
NIH Support: National Institute for Neurological Disorders and Stroke; National Institute of General Medical Sciences
Students Contribute to Research Through Ovarian Art
Posted on by Dr. Francis Collins
Seeing the development of an organ under a microscope for the first time can be a truly unforgettable experience. But for a class taught by Crystal Rogers at California State University, Northridge, it can also be an award-winning moment.
This image, prepared during a biology lab course, was one of the winners in the 2018 BioArt Scientific Image & Video Competition, sponsored by the Federation of American Societies for Experimental Biology (FASEB). This colorful image shows the tip of an ovary from a fruit fly (Drosophila melanogaster), provided by Mariano Loza-Coll. You can see that the ovary is packed with oocytes (DNA stained blue). The orderly connective structure (pink) and signal-transmitting molecules like STAT (yellow) are common to egg maturation and reproductive processes in humans.
What makes this image unique among this year’s BioArt winners is that the prep work was done by undergraduate students just learning how to work in a lab. They did the tissue dissections, molecular labeling, and beautiful stainings in preparation for Rogers to “snap” the photo on her research lab’s optical-sectioning microscope.
What’s also fantastic is that many of Rogers’s students are from groups traditionally underrepresented in biomedicine. Many are considering careers in research and, from the looks of things, they are off to a beautiful start.
After teaching classes, Rogers also has an NIH-supported lab to run. She and her team study salamanders and chickens to determine how biological “glue” proteins, called cadherins, help to create neural crest cells, a critical cell type that arises very early in development .
For developmental biologists, it’s essential to understand what prompts these neural crest cells to migrate to locations throughout the body, from the heart to the skin to the cranium, or head. For example, cranial neural crest cells at first produce what appears to be the same generic, undifferentiated facial template in vertebrate species. And yet, neural crest cells and the surrounding ectodermal cells go on to generate craniofacial structures as distinct as the beak of a toucan, the tusk of a boar, or the horn of a rhinoceros.
But if the organ of interest is an ovary, the fruit fly has long been a go-to organism to learn more. Not only does the fruit fly open a window into ovarian development and health issues like infertility, it showcases the extraordinary beauty of biology.
 A catenin-dependent balance between N-cadherin and E-cadherin controls neuroectodermal cell fate choices. Rogers CD, Sorrells LK, Bronner ME. Mech Dev. 2018 Aug;152:44-56.
Rogers Lab (California State University, Northridge)
BioArt Scientific Image & Video Competition (Federation of American Societies for Experimental Biology, Bethesda, MD)
NIH Support: Eunice Kennedy Shriver National Institute of Child Health and Human Development
Creative Minds: Building a CRISPR Gene Drive Against Malaria
Posted on by Dr. Francis Collins
Researchers have used Drosophila melanogaster, the common fruit fly that sometimes hovers around kitchens, to make seminal discoveries involving genetics, the nervous system, and behavior, just to name a few. Could a new life-saving approach to prevent malaria be next? Valentino Gantz, a researcher at the University of California, San Diego, is on a path to answer that question.
Gantz has received a 2016 NIH Director’s Early Independence Award to use Drosophila to hone a new bioengineered tool that acts as a so-called “gene drive,” which spreads a new genetically encoded trait through a population much faster than would otherwise be possible. The lessons learned while working with flies will ultimately be applied to developing a more foolproof system for use in mosquitoes with the hope of stopping the transmission of malaria and potentially other serious mosquito-borne diseases.
Creative Minds: A New Mechanism for Epigenetics?
Posted on by Dr. Francis Collins
To learn more about how DNA and inheritance works, Keith Maggert has spent much of his nearly 30 years as a researcher studying what takes place not just within the DNA genome but also the subtle modifications of it. That’s where a stable of enzymes add chemical marks to DNA, turning individual genes on or off without changing their underlying sequence. What’s really intrigued Maggert is these “epigenetic” modifications are maintained through cell division and can even get passed down from parent to child over many generations. Like many researchers, he wants to know how it happens.
Maggert thinks there’s more to the story than scientists have realized. Now an associate professor at the University of Arizona College of Medicine, Tucson, he suspects that a prominent subcellular structure in the nucleus called the nucleolus also exerts powerful epigenetic effects. What’s different about the nucleolus, Maggert proposes, is it doesn’t affect genes one by one, a focal point of current epigenetic research. He thinks under some circumstances its epigenetic effects can activate many previously silenced, or “off” genes at once, sending cells and individuals on a different path toward health or disease.
Maggert has received a 2016 NIH Director’s Transformative Research Award to pursue this potentially new paradigm. If correct, it would transform current thinking in the field and provide an exciting new perspective to track epigenetics and its contributions to a wide range of human diseases, including cancer, cardiovascular disease, and neurodegenerative disorders.