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How Neurons Make Connections

Posted on by Lawrence Tabak, D.D.S., Ph.D.

Credit: Emily Heckman, Doe Lab, University of Oregon, Eugene

For many people, they are tiny pests. These fruit flies that sometimes hover over a bowl of peaches or a bunch of bananas. But for a dedicated community of researchers, fruit flies are an excellent model organism and source of information into how neurons self-organize during the insect’s early development and form a complex, fully functioning nervous system.

That’s the scientific story on display in this beautiful image of a larval fruit fly’s developing nervous system. Its subtext is: fundamental discoveries in the fruit fly, known in textbooks as Drosophila melanogaster, provide basic clues into the development and repair of the human nervous system. That’s because humans and fruit flies, though very distantly related through the millennia, still share many genes involved in their growth and development. In fact, 60 percent of the Drosophila genome is identical to ours.

Once hatched, as shown in this image, a larval fly uses neurons (magenta) to sense its environment. These include neurons that sense the way its body presses against the surrounding terrain, as needed to coordinate the movements of its segmented body parts and crawl in all directions.

This same set of neurons will generate painful sensations, such as the attack of a parasitic wasp. Paintbrush-like neurons in the fly’s developing head (magenta, left side) allow the insect to taste the sweetness of a peach or banana.

There is a second subtype of neurons, known as proprioceptors (green). These neurons will give the young fly its “sixth sense” understanding about where its body is positioned in space. The complete collection of developing neurons shown here are responsible for all the fly’s primary sensations. They also send these messages on to the insect’s central nervous system, which contains thousands of other neurons that are hidden from view.

Emily Heckman, now a postdoctoral researcher at the Michigan Neuroscience Institute, University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, captured this image during her graduate work in the lab of Chris Doe, University of Oregon, Eugene. For her keen eye, she received a trainee/early-career BioArt Award from the Federation of American Societies for Experimental Biology (FASEB), which each year celebrates the art of science.

The image is one of many from a much larger effort in the Doe lab that explores the way neurons that will partner find each other and link up to drive development. Heckman and Doe also wanted to know how neurons in the developing brain interconnect into integrated neural networks, or circuits, and respond when something goes wrong. To find out, they disrupted sensory neurons or forced them to take alternate paths and watched to see what would happen.

As published in the journal eLife [1], the system has an innate plasticity. Their findings show that developing sensory neurons instruct one another on how to meet up just right. If one suddenly takes an alternate route, its partner can still reach out and make the connection. Once an electrically active neural connection, or synapse, is made, the neural signals themselves slow or stop further growth. This kind of adaptation and crosstalk between neurons takes place only during a particular critical window during development.

Heckman says part of what she enjoys about the image is how it highlights that many sensory neurons develop simultaneously and in a coordinated process. What’s also great about visualizing these events in the fly embryo is that she and other researchers can track many individual neurons from the time they’re budding stem cells to when they become a fully functional and interconnected neural circuit.

So, the next time you see fruit flies hovering in the kitchen, just remember there’s more to their swarm than you think. Our lessons learned studying them will help point researchers toward new ways in people to restore or rebuild neural connections after devastating disruptions from injury or disease.


Presynaptic contact and activity opposingly regulate postsynaptic dendrite outgrowth. Heckman EL, Doe CQ. Elife. 2022 Nov 30;11:e82093.


Research Organisms (National Institute of General Medical Sciences/NIH)

Doe Lab (University of Oregon, Eugene)

Emily Heckman (University of Michigan, Ann Arbor)

BioArt Awards (Federation of American Societies for Experimental Biology, Rockville, MD)

NIH Support: Eunice Kennedy Shriver National Institute of Child Health and Human Development

Combating Mosquitoes with an Engineered Fungus

Posted on by Dr. Francis Collins

Caption: Anopheles coluzzii mosquito with transgenic fungus (green) emerging from its body after death. Credit: Brian Lovett, University of Maryland, College Park

Almost everywhere humans live on this planet, mosquitoes carry microbes that cause potentially deadly diseases, from West Nile virus to malaria. While chemical insecticides offer a line of defense, mosquito populations often grow resistant to them. So, it’s intriguing to learn that we may now have another ally in this important fight: a genetically engineered fungus!

Reporting in the journal Science, an international research team supported by NIH describes how this new approach might be used to combat malaria [1]. A fungus called Metarhizium pingshaense is a natural enemy of the mosquito, but, by itself, it kills mosquitoes too slowly to control transmission of malaria. To make this fungus an even more efficient mosquito killer, researchers engineered it to carry a gene encoding a toxin, derived from a spider, that is deadly to insects. Tests of the souped-up fungus in a unique contained facility designed to simulate a West African village found it safely and rapidly killed insecticide-resistant mosquitoes, reducing their numbers by more than 99 percent within 45 days.

Mosquitoes are the deadliest animals in the world. More than 3.2 billion people—about half of all humans—are at risk for malaria, and more than 400,000 die each year from the disease. Other mosquito-borne illnesses, including Zika and dengue viruses, sicken millions more each year. By combining existing insect control strategies with the latest technical innovation, it should be possible to lower those numbers.

In the latest study, Raymond St. Leger and Brian Lovett, University of Maryland, College Park, teamed with Abdoulaye Diabate and colleagues from Institut de Recherche en Sciences de la Santé/Cente Muraz, Burkina Faso, West Africa. The researchers employed a strategy that’s been in use around the world for more than 100 years to control agricultural pests.

The approach involves the fungal species Metarhizium, which kills a variety of insects. Earlier studies had shown that spores from a specific Metarhizium strain could make a big enough dent in a mosquito population to raise the possibility of using the fungus to reduce infective bites among humans [2]. But killing off the mosquitoes required very large quantities of fungal spores and usually took a couple of weeks.

Here’s where things turned innovative. To boost the fungus’s potency, St. Leger and colleagues used genetic engineering to add a toxin derived from the Australian Blue Mountains funnel-web spider. The toxin came with a major advantage: the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) already has approved its use as a safe-and-effective insecticidal protein.

Besides giving the engineered fungus that ability to produce a spider toxin, the researchers added another clever element. They didn’t want the fungus to produce the toxin all the time—only after it comes in contact with a mosquito’s hemolymph, the insect equivalent of blood. So, they needed to insert a control switch, and the researchers knew just where to find the needed part.

Once inside a mosquito, the fungus naturally produces a structural protein called collagen that shields it from the insect’s immune system. A genetic switch that turns “on” when it detects an insect’s hemolymph controls that collagen production. To ensure that the spider toxin was produced at just the right time, the researchers hotwired their Metarhizium to begin producing it under the control of this same genetic switch.

The next step was to test this modified organism in a more natural, but controlled, environment. The researchers spent more than a year in Burkina Faso building a specialized facility called a MosquitoSphere. It’s similar to a very large greenhouse, but with mosquito netting instead of glass.

The MosquitoSphere has six separate compartments, four of which contain West African huts, along with native plants and breeding sites for mosquitoes. The researchers hung a black cotton sheet, previously soaked in sesame oil, on the wall of a hut in each of three chambers.

In one hut, the sesame oil contained genetically engineered fungal spores. In the second hut, the oil contained natural fungal spores. In the third hut, there were no spores at all. Then, they released 1,000 adult male and 500 adult female mosquitoes into each chamber and watched what happened over the next 45 days.

In the hut without spores, the mosquitoes established a stable population of almost 1,400. In the chamber with the natural spores, 450 mosquitoes survived. But, in the chamber with the engineered fungus, the researchers counted just 13 survivors—too few to sustain a viable population.

The researchers say they suspect the fungus would be relatively easy to contain in nature. It’s sticky and not easily airborne. The spores are also extremely sensitive to sunlight, making it difficult for them to travel far. Importantly, the fungus didn’t harm other beneficial insects, including honeybees.

Caution is warranted before considering the release of a genetically engineered organism into the wild. In the meantime, the genetically engineered fungus also will serve as a platform for continued technology development.

The system can be readily adapted to target mosquitoes or other insects , perhaps using different natural toxins if insects might grow resistant to Metarhizium just as they have to traditional insecticides. Interestingly, the researchers note that the engineered fungi appear to make mosquitoes sensitive to chemical insecticides again, suggesting that the two types of insect-killers might be used successfully in combination.


[1] Transgenic Metarhizium rapidly kills mosquitoes in a malaria-endemic region of Burkina Faso. Lovett B, Bilgo E, Millogo SA, Ouattarra AK, Sare I, Gnambani EJ, Dabire RK, Diabate A, St Leger RJ. Science. 2019 May 31;364(6443):894-897.

[2] An entomopathogenic fungus for control of adult African malaria mosquitoes. Scholte EJ, Ng’habi K, Kihonda J, Takken W, Paaijmans K, Abdulla S, Killeen GF, Knols BG. Science. 2005 Jun 10;308(5728):1641-2.


Transgenic Fungus Rapidly Killed Malaria Mosquitoes in West African Study (University of Maryland News Release)

Malaria (National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases/NIH)

Funnel-Web Spiders (Australian Museum, Sydney)

Video: 2016 Grand Challenges Spotlight Talk: Abdoulaye Diabaté (YouTube)

Raymond St. Leger (University of Maryland, College Park)

NIH Support: National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases

Creative Minds: Building a CRISPR Gene Drive Against Malaria

Posted on by Dr. Francis Collins

Valentino Gantz

Valentino Gantz/Credit: Erik Jepsen

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.

Gene Drive Research Takes Aim at Malaria

Posted on by Dr. Francis Collins

Mosquitoes and a Double HelixMalaria has afflicted humans for millennia. Even today, the mosquito-borne, parasitic disease claims more than a half-million lives annually [1]. Now, in a study that has raised both hope and concern, researchers have taken aim at this ancient scourge by using one of modern science’s most powerful new technologies—the CRISPR/Cas9 gene-editing tool—to turn mosquitoes from dangerous malaria vectors into allies against infection [2].

The secret behind this new strategy is the “gene drive,” which involves engineering an organism’s genome in a way that intentionally spreads, or drives, a trait through its population much faster than is possible by normal Mendelian inheritance. The concept of gene drive has been around since the late 1960s [3]; but until the recent arrival of highly precise gene editing tools like CRISPR/Cas9, the approach was largely theoretical. In the new work, researchers inserted into a precise location in the mosquito chromosome, a recombinant DNA segment designed to block transmission of malaria parasites. Importantly, this segment also contained a gene drive designed to ensure the trait was inherited with extreme efficiency. And efficient it was! When the gene-drive engineered mosquitoes were mated with normal mosquitoes in the lab, they passed on the malaria-blocking trait to 99.5 percent of their offspring (as opposed to 50 percent for Mendelian inheritance).