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Archive - Apr 28, 2011

New Technique Reveals Functional Gene Networks in C. elegans

An international team of scientists, led by researchers at the University of California, San Diego School of Medicine, has developed a new method for discerning the functions of previously uncharacterized genes and placing them in interactive, functional networks that reveal how gene products interact to bring about cellular events. The research is published in the April 29, 2011 issue of Cell. The effort was led by principal investigators Dr. Karen Oegema, professor of cellular and molecular medicine and head of the Laboratory of Mitotic Mechanisms in the Ludwig Institute for Cancer Research at UC San Diego, and Dr. Kristin C. Gunsalus, assistant professor in the Center for Genomics and Systems Biology in the Department of Biology at New York University. More than a decade of genome sequencing projects has generated a comprehensive "parts" list of the genes required to build an organism, an inventory of the necessary cellular building blocks. But the functions of many of these genes remain unknown, preventing researchers from fully deciphering their cellular pathways and how their interactions might shed light on human disease. One of the stars of this research is Caenorhabditis elegans, a tiny, much-studied worm that is an important model system for understanding processes in animal cells. In recent years, scientists have sought to create systemic catalogs of its gene functions, and those of other model organisms. These large-scale efforts place genes in interactive networks. Within these networks, proximity reflects similarity of function. In other words, genes with similar functions are directly linked and genes with dissimilar functions are further apart. The functions of uncharacterized genes are inferred based upon their proximity to genes whose functions are known.

Prairie Voles Used in Study of Autism Drug Treatment

Researchers at the Center for Translational Social Neuroscience (CTSN) at Emory University are focusing on prairie voles as a new model to screen the effectiveness of drugs to treat autism. They are starting with D-cycloserine, a drug Emory researchers have shown enhances behavioral therapy for phobias and also promotes pair bonding among prairie voles. Giving female voles D-cycloserine, which is thought to facilitate learning and memory, can encourage them to bond with a new male more quickly than usual. The results were published online on April 8, 2011, and will appear in a future issue of Biological Psychiatry. "The prairie vole model has enabled us to learn about complex neural pathways in social areas of the brain," says senior author Dr. Larry Young. “We believe these insights will be useful in identifying drugs that enhance social cognition and learning. Drugs with these properties, particularly when combined with behavioral therapies, may be beneficial in the treatment of autism spectrum disorders." Dr. Young is division chief of Behavioral Neuroscience and Psychiatric Disorders at the Yerkes National Primate Research Center, William P. Timmie professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences at Emory University School of Medicine and director of the Emory CTSN. He and his colleagues have been studying the prairie vole for more than 15 years as a model to explore the neurobiology of prosocial behaviors, including cooperation, compassion, bonding, and social reciprocity. Now, they are hoping to identify drugs that can enhance social learning in individuals with autism spectrum disorders, and they think the process of pair bonding in the prairie vole may be a useful tool for identifying new therapies.