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The Fly Could Prove Fruitful for Good Health

USC College’s Michelle Arbeitman’s federal stimulus grant for neurobiology research in fruit flies will help scientists get closer to detecting genes that underlie social behavior. The work may lead to better understanding of neural diseases.

By Stephanie Jones MA ’10
December 8, 2009

Michelle Arbeitman of biological sciences received a federal stimulus grant from the National Institute of General Medical Sciences to help advance the understanding of the molecular genetics of reproductive behaviors and physiology in fruit flies.

Michelle Arbeitman of biological sciences received a federal stimulus grant from the National Institute of General Medical Sciences to help advance the understanding of the molecular genetics of reproductive behaviors and physiology in fruit flies.

Michelle Arbeitman, Gabilan Assistant Professor of Biological Sciences, has received a $325,148 federal stimulus grant from the National Institute of General Medical Sciences.

The award enables Arbeitman to hire one post-doctorial researcher, one technician, as well as undergraduates to help advance the understanding of the molecular genetics of reproductive behaviors and physiology in fruit flies. The goal is to provide a deeper understanding of the molecular genetics of social behaviors — such as courtship displays — with the long-term objective of understanding human behaviors.

“Having a basic understanding about how behaviors are specified at a molecular-genetic level will be important,” Arbeitman said. “We might have a better understanding of how behaviors are specified in humans. Also, there are many diseases that arise due to defects of neural circuit patterning and function. Our research may impact those types of questions.”

Ultimately, Arbeitman’s research may improve the scientific understanding of defects and diseases that arise in the nervous system, perhaps autism for example.

The grant will also enable Arbeitman to purchase two environmental fly incubators that can collect data around the clock. Her research requires the housing of fruit flies at different temperatures and under various light and dark conditions. In the past, her research projects were often delayed because of a dearth of incubators that could be set-up in the various environmental conditions.

“This is really going to increase the pace of our research,” she said. “With more than one incubator, we can have the lights on off and set in different environmental conditions. That means the student doesn’t have to be here in the middle of the night to collect data at certain time points.”

Without the grant, Arbeitman would have had to discontinue employing undergrads in her lab.

“Over the last several years we have had very talented undergraduates work in the lab and make substantial contributions to our scientific questions,” she said. “Most students aren’t in a financial situation where they can work as volunteers, so I support them as part-time employees usually through grants during the summer, and at reduced hours during the school year. The additional funds will allow me to continue having undergraduates work in the laboratory.”

The grant will fund the post doc for two fiscal years. The additional help and equipment will quicken the pace of her crucial research.

“Right now, very little is known in any model system about how behavior is specified,” Arbeitman said, “So, we study it using a basic system, like fruit flies, and hope to gain insight into the behaviors of higher organisms.”