Researchers uncover a novel link between genetics and movement control

A microscopy image of the nervous system of a young fruit fly.

Dr Claudio Alonso (right) and Dr Joao Picao-Osorio in their lab at the University of Sussex.

A small molecule in cells that was previously believed to have no impact on animal behaviour could in fact be responsible for controlling precise movements, according to new University of Sussex research.

The team at Sussex, led by Dr Claudio Alonso, found that fruit flies had difficulty in righting themselves when placed upside down after changes were made to tiny pieces of their genetic material encoding microRNAs (miRNAs).

MiRNAs are molecules encoded in the genome of all animals, including humans, that regulate the activity of individual genes.

MiRNAs have been shown to affect the formation of the nervous system, but the Sussex-led research due to be published on-line in Science on Thursday (22 October) is the first to show that they might also have very specific roles in controlling certain movements.

Dr Alonso, a Wellcome Trust Investigator and Reader in Developmental Genetics in the School of Life Sciences, explains: “We know very little about how simple movements are encoded in the genome.

“Yet, the survival of all animals – including humans – strongly depends on our ability to perform simple movements since the moment of birth, such as primitive reflexes essential for feeding.”

“This knowledge might in the long-term contribute to the understanding of the underlying mechanisms of human disorders of the nervous system that lead to loss of movement coordination such as Parkinson’s disease.”

The researchers had originally tried ‘switching off’ individual microRNA molecules to investigate how this affected the formation of fruit flies’ nervous systems.

When they found no apparent effects on the structure of the nervous system of fruit flies lacking the miRNA, they instead investigated whether the nervous system ‘worked’ properly.

This was when they discovered that fruit flies lacking a specific miRNA could not correct their position when placed upside down.

Dr Alonso and his team are now turning their attention to whether different miRNA molecules could be responsible for other movements both in the fruit fly and in other organisms.

Fruit flies are small insects that are often used for genetic research as they reproduce quickly, are easy to breed in laboratory conditions and share many of the same fundamental mechanisms and pathways found in more complex organisms such as humans.

The research was primarily carried out by Dr Joao Picao-Osorio and Dr Alonso, and was further strengthened by Dr Jamie Johnston (also at Sussex) and Drs Matthias Landgraf and Jimena Berni at the University of Cambridge.


Notes for Editors

This work was funded by a Wellcome Trust Investigator Award to Claudio R. Alonso [WT grant 098410/Z/12/Z] and a PhD studentship to Joao Picao-Osorio by Fundação para a Ciência e a Tecnologia (Portugal) [FCT grant SFRH/BD/63312/2009]. Jimena Berni is funded by a Sir Henry Dale Fellowship (Wellcome Trust and the Royal Society) Grant 105568/Z/14/Z and Matthias Landgraf was supported by grants from the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council (UK) (BB/I022414/1) and the Wellcome Trust (092986/Z).

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Posted on behalf of: School of Life Sciences
Last updated: Thursday, 22 October 2015