18, 2001, Gazette)
|Photo by Chris
Members of the Staveley lab in the fly
room: (L-R) Annika Haywood, PhD student in biology; Tara Snelgrove,
undergraduate NSERC scholar in biochemistry; Dr. Brian E. Staveley,
assistant professor of biology; Angie Matthews, undergraduate NSERC
scholar in biology; Jamie Kramer, PhD student in biology. Unavailable
for photo: graduate students Hua-Xin Gao and Justin Moores.
It is said that the drop of an apple upon the head of Isaac Newton led
to the formulation of the theory of universal gravitation. but who ever
thought that the fruit fly perched on that apple might one day lead molecular
biologists to a better understanding of human life?
The humble fruit fly might not command much respect from the layperson,
but for contemporary molecular biologists, it is mans new best friend.
Memorials Dr. Brian Staveley is one such biologist. He specializes
in the molecular biology of cells, particularly the dynamics of cell death.
This is currently among the most intense areas of study in molecular biology.
Understanding how cells live and die, grow and multiply is essential
to understanding a lot of medical conditions, Dr. Staveley explained.
He and his lab staff focus on some basic aspects of cell biology: cell
reproduction, growth and death. These are relatively basic cell
behaviours and it means that these things are involved in all sorts of
biology, including medical aspects.
How these basic cell behaviours are initiated is a central problem. The
processes that decide the fate of a cell at any particular moment have
to do with the role of proteins.
A lot of what we are doing in modern molecular biology is understanding
how different proteins and protein machines interact. This is called signal
transduction. You have a signal caused by a hormone or something
interacting with a cells membrane causing changes inside the cell
which leads to one thing turning on one thing turning on another thing.
You have a signal transduction cascade.
Different types of signal transduction take place on different pathways.
Dr. Staveleys work concentrates on the insulin receptor pathway.
A series of one molecule telling another molecule to do something
ends up in a change in gene expression or (in other words) in the cells
state. Im interested in whether the cell stays alive or if it dies,
or if it grows or stops growing.
Fruit flies, or drosophila, are convenient subjects for research into
the basic operations of cells. Dr. Staveley explained that their short
lives and relative cellular/molecular simplicity allow molecular biologists
to test theories expeditiously. Such testing is useful because humans
share many genetic similarities with fruit flies.
A lot of the genes are the same, (particularly those) simply involved
in normal cellular physiology. We can use this model, using drosophila,
to investigate a lot of different diseases. Our general strategy is to
look for genes that are similar to genes that cause a disease in humans.
This helps solve a sticky problem in the genetic study of disease. Quite
often when we find out what the gene is, we really have no idea how to
go from the gene to the disease. One way of doing this is to cause the
same condition in fruit flies, and of course we can study it much faster
in fruit flies and come up with something that may be very pertinent.
Thats the general approach that my lab takes.
The potential medical applications are many, and Dr. Staveley and his
staff are looking at signal transduction in genes related to various diseases,
including Parkinsons disease. Parkinsons disease destroys
the neurons in the part of the brain responsible for controlling the movement
Were interested in investigating this drosophila version of
Parkinsons disease. We expect that there is a cell-death component
to it, because that is how Parkinsons works certain neurons
die before they are supposed to. We have identified the drosophila version
of the gene called Parkin, which is involved in Parkinsons disease.
We are currently trying to nail that one down. Once this is done,
Dr. Staveley believes solutions to preventing the death of neurons may
Whenever you really dont have much of an idea why a mutation
in a certain gene would lead to a certain disease, drosophila gives you
an organism you can make these changes in, Dr. Staveley said. Even
if you dont know what the biochemical or even the molecular bases
of the disease is, you can use the fruit fly to get clues to whats
The meek fruit fly turns out to be a very flexible friend in the fight
against debilitating disease.