My students and I use a molecular genetic approach to answer interesting biological questions. That is, we look at the effect of the expression of certain genes on the behavior of an animal. The animal we study is a small free-living roundworm, Caenorhabditis elegans. This small (1 mm) worm can be found eating bacteria in your compost pile. Despite its small size and seeming simplicity, this worm is capable of sensing chemicals in the air (smell) and in liquid (taste), it has a sense of touch (mechanosensation), and it can learn and remember things. Male C. elegans also have a complex mating behavior. We are interested in how these behaviors are manifested; specifically, we want to know which genes need to be used and which proteins need to interact in order to allow these behaviors to take place.
A second line of research is aimed at determining the role of a putative potassium channel in male mating behavior. Student in my lab previously isolating some interesting alleles of the gene sup-9, thought to encode one such potassium channel. These mutant alleles seem only to affect male worms, making them unable to mate, despite being able to move normally. Current students are investigating whether this defect is do to abberant channel activity in muscle cell membranes or in the nervous system. This work has been funded by several grants from the NIH-AREA program.
Some students in my lab are working to determine the role of a potassium channel, encoded by the gene sup-9, in male mating behavior. Particular mutations in this gene affect only male worms, making them unable to mate. This gene is expressed in both muscles and a few neurons, so we want to know whether the channel affects mating ability through its function in neurons or muscles. This will tell us more about the function of this channel. Our work has been funded by two grants from the NIH-AREA program.
In 2009, I spent six months working at a lab at the Karolinska Institute in Sweden, collaborating with Dr. Peter Swoboda. We are continuing to collaborate on a project to determine which genes are needed to maintain neuronal synapse function in adult worms. Others have shown that reductions in particular neuronal proteins that are involved in neuron-neuron communications (synapses) are early hallmarks of diseases such as Alzheimer’s. We are using C. elegans as a model system to study which genes are needed to maintain higher levels of synaptic proteins during aging by studying mutant animals in which protein levels become reduced.
Students who currently work in my lab learn techniques such as PCR, site-directed mutagenesis, molecular cloning, micro-injection, western blotting, the use of yeast 2-hybrid systems, bioinformatics, RNAi, and the use of microarray data.