The work of geneticist Coral Warr, who works with fruit flies, could have implications for research into neurological conditions such as autism spectrum disorder, schizophrenia and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder. Photo: Simon Schluter Geneticist Coral Warr with postdoctoral researchers Dr Michelle Henstridge and Dr Travis Johnson. Photo: Simon Schluter
Scientists have discovered how female fruit flies produce mutant embryos without heads or tails, findings which could prove fundamental to human health research.
Outlined in the journal Nature Communications on Wednesday, the work answers long-standing questions in developmental biology and could have implications for research into neurological conditions such as autism spectrum disorder, schizophrenia and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder.
The team at Monash University, led by fruit fly geneticist Coral Warr and structural biologist James Whisstock, established what was going on at a molecular level when a particular protein was removed from the female fruit fly.
“It sounds gory but if you have a female fruit fly that does not have this protein, then the offspring won’t have a head or a tail and they will never develop one,” Associate Professor Warr said. “They just consist of a torso.”
The protein has been aptly named the “torso-like protein” and has been known about for decades following its discovery as part of Nobel prize-winning research. However its role in embryonic development has remained a mystery.
Using innovative microscopy and imaging techniques the researchers were able to show that the torso-like protein played a key role in the release of a growth factor, which prompted the development of the head and tail in the fruit fly embryo.
By removing the protein in genetically modified fruit flies, the researchers found the cells in the female’s offspring never received the growth factor’s instructions on how they should develop – so they didn’t.
Having established how the protein worked in fruit flies, Associate Professor Warr said the quest to shed light on how the process worked in humans was closer to being solved.
“How they develop and how their brain works is very similar to humans,” she said.
Up to 75 per cent of human genes are shared by the fruit fly – a tiny insect no longer than five millimetres.
The culmination of five years of work, Associate Professor Warr said having discovered the fundamentals behind how cells talk to each other during development, studies using vertebrate species such as zebra fish or mammals such as mice could begin.
Significantly the torso-like protein comes from the same family as a human immune protein called perforin, which is associated with autism, schizophrenia and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder.
“Autism in particular is thought to be a problem with brain development, so this gives us an idea of where we can look in future studies,” she said.