The Montell Lab at University of California, Santa Barbara, headed by Dr. Craig Montell, studies fruit flies and explores the possible applications of their research. The lab is comprised of eight postdoctoral fellows, a few graduate students, and some undergrads, as well as technical staff, project scientists, and visiting scholars.
“A central question in neurobiology is how animal behavior and decision making is controlled by the environment,” states the Montell Lab website.
Their lab studies the common fruit fly, Drosophila melanogaster, on molecular, genetic, electrophysiological, and biological levels. The concentration is on TRP, or transient receptor potential channels, a type of structure in cell membranes that responds to almost all kinds of outside inputs and, in turn, influences behaviors.
“The flies’ behaviors are influenced by their sensory system, the five senses,” explains Yijing Wang, a postdoctoral student. “I have two projects right now; one involves THC, the major chemical in cannabis.” Wang’s project involves finding new sensory receptors in fruit flies.
“If we found [the receptors] in fruit flies, then we could use the information to analyze THC,” Wang says. The possibilities of such a discovery could mean the development of more medicinal drugs for mammals, for a disease such as Parkinson’s.
“Fruit flies share over 75 percent of their genes with humans,” Wang says, in response to an inquiry about why the Montell lab works with fruit flies. Flies are more similar to humans than people think, and they even show the capacity for learning and memory.
“It’s easier to understand their genome, they have short life spans, and you can mutate their genes,” Wang continues. She mentions that other labs also work with mammals, such as mice, but fruit flies make for an ideal test subject for a variety of research projects.
“My second program is about courtship,” Wang continues. “We can induce male-male courtship by mutating their genes.” The flies have an altered pheromone detector and due to the editing of their genes, they cannot distinguish between male and female flies.
“Everyone has their own projects–some people have more than two,” Wang says, but she mentions constant collaboration between researchers.
“In this lab, I think the advantage is a lot of equipment,” Wang says. “If you want to test electrophysiology, or say, a behavior test, you have the equipment,” she continues.
“Genomic editing techniques are getting better,” Wang says, when asked about the future of their research. CRISPR, a type of DNA used to break apart strands in order to manipulate them during the repair process, is a new tool used in genome editing. It allows for better modification of a genetic sequence–in this case, the DNA of a fruit fly.
However, Wang concedes that despite the recent advances, the research may still take a good amount of time.
“This is not like in some other fields, like stem cell research, where progress is very fast. It can take many years to gather the data to publish a paper,” Wang says.