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WVU biologist receives $1.3 million NIH grant to examine fruit flies’ olfactory systems

Andrew Dacks, assistant professor of neuroscience in the Department of Biology, received a $1.3 million grant from the National Institutes of Health to conduct research at West Virginia University on the effects of serotonin in fruit flies.  

Andrew Dacks
Andrew Dacks

Dacks and his team of researchers will study how serotonin affects different cells in the olfactory system of fruit flies and how those systems could apply to other systems as well.  

“There are things you can do with fruit flies that you cannot do in any other system. There is a lot that is already known about the species, so that gives us a lot to work with,” Dacks said. “In reality, our interest isn’t just to figure out the olfactory system of the fruit flies but to identify broad principles that can be applied to other systems.”

Dacks is advising two WVU biology graduate students who are working on this project, Tyler Sizemore and Kaylynn Coates. Sizemore is manipulating the olfactory system cells to see how they operate afterwards.  

“What serotonin does to a cell is dictated by a given receptor that is expressed by that cell,” Sizemore said. “My contribution is manipulating serotonin receptors in specific cells and identifying how that alters the olfactory system physiologically.”

Tyler Sizemore
Tyler Sizemore

Sizemore created an atlas of which cells express which serotonin receptors within the fruit fly’s olfactory system. This information served as the basis for the grant’s hypothesis.

“Without the amazing contribution he made, we wouldn’t know what receptor goes with what cell,” Dacks said. “(Sizemore) did the hard, comprehensive leg work for us to set up all the hypotheses that are built into this grant.” 

Coates, who recently received a NASA grant to study how serotonin neurons are regulated in the brain, will examine what specific neurons the serotonin cells are communicating with based off of a dataset of the fruit fly brain created by Davi Bock at the Janelia Research Campus in Ashburn, Virginia.

“They took the fruit fly brain, which is tiny, and sectioned it thin and used a special stain to see the membranes of the individual cell in the brain and follow them throughout the entire brain,” Coates said. “It’s kind of like playing connect the dots with the brain—we can reconstruct individual neurons. You can also see regions of that neuron where they are releasing chemical signals to other neurons.”

Kaylynn Coates
Kaylynn Coates

There is also collaboration on fruit fly research beyond Dacks and his team at WVU. Dacks is working with another biologist from the University of Maryland, Quetin Gaudry, whose lab will also determine the role of different serotonin receptors on the odor-evoked responses of neurons and odor-guided behavior.  

While many different labs around the world are researching fruit flies, the community of researchers share their reagents with each other.

“What makes the fruit fly community such a successful, thriving group is the idea that it’s like open access,” Dacks said. “People want to share their reagents because the more people who use it, the further the community grows.”
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