Columbia University in the City of New York

Mental Landscapes: Shaping a Fly

New molecular approaches chart developmental journeys from single cells to whole bodies

Top: Fruit fly (Drosophila melanogaster). Middle (left to right): haltere, leg, wing. Bottom: Imaginal discs. (Credit: Siqian Feng / Ryan Loker / Richard Mann / Nicolas Gompel)

Making a fruit fly (Drosophila melanogaster) is a gorgeously precise process. As the insect develops from the single cell of a fertilized egg, genes must switch on and off at just the right times in just the right places to map and sculpt its growing body. A small mistake can have huge consequences, causing a fly to sprout an extra pair of wings, for instance.

Understand the logic of these patterning genes in a fruit fly, says Principal Investigator Richard Mann, PhD, and you can better understand how closely related genes form a human being. New research from his lab, showcased in this collage, teases out how important developmental genes from the Hox family, known to be architects of the body, are controlled.

It’s this very complexity that delivers life’s marvelous diversity of forms: some with wings, some with hands.

One recent study—led by Siqian Feng, PhD, an associate research scientist in the Mann lab—identified molecules that help Hox genes to guide the growth of legs from imaginal discs: collections of precursor cells that develop into specific fly parts. Another project—spearheaded by recently graduated PhD student Ryan Loker—revealed new details of how a wing forms and how genes evolve. A third paper from the Mann lab described a new tool that can pinpoint which developmental molecules (such as the transcription factors that control gene activity) are at play in specific imaginal discs and cell types.

“You could not get this kind of data before,” said Dr. Mann.

With all of these genes and control molecules in the mix, development’s logic can have a Rube Goldberg feel to it. Complex it might be, but Dr. Mann points out it’s this very complexity that delivers life’s marvelous diversity of forms: some with wings, some with hands.

Read more about this work in PNAS, Current Biology and Nature Communications.

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