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One Fruit Fly at a Time

Gift enables Widener faculty and students, such at Shijo Benjamin '17, to conduct extensive scientific research.

The common fruit fly. We know them as pesky insects that buzz around our kitchens, covering our countertops and fruit baskets, seemingly doubling by the hour. But scientific researchers see them in a different light: not as pests, but as model organisms and research subjects to study questions critical to human health.

Dr. Hemlata Mistry, a Widener associate professor of biology, has made the fruit fly—known to scientists as the Drosophila melanogaster—a centerpiece of her research. As a scientist particularly interested in learning more about the nervous system, Mistry values the fruit fly because there is a high degree of similarity not only in genes between fruit flies and humans, but also in the networks and mechanisms through which the gene products interact. With the powerful genetic tools available, researchers can use fruit flies to study genetic, cellular, and molecular mechanisms implicated in human health and disease, particularly spinal cord injuries.

“Some may question using fruit flies in research that could have future implications on the treatment of spinal cord injuries in humans, especially since they don’t have vertebrae,” Mistry said. “But all animals share a common origin, so it makes sense that they will all share the same basic mechanisms that give rise to cellular and genetic development of the central nervous system. Therefore, we can absolutely make meaningful discoveries through research with flies. The advantage of starting on flies is that you can make significant headway much faster, as the lifecycle of a fruit fly is just 10 days, and do so at a much cheaper price tag.”

Mistry’s current research endeavor involves wounding the nervous system of fruit fly embryos to determine the effects on the nervous system and monitoring the insects’ response to trauma. She says that the results could pave the way for future research that discovers the key to treating spinal cord injuries in humans.

“All organisms are able to repair damaged tissue to different extents, but few animals have true regeneration potential,” Mistry said. “We do not understand why repair or cell regeneration in the nervous system is so limited after trauma caused by injury or neurodegenerative disease.  More recently, studies have begun to look at damage to the nervous system with hope that we can begin to fill this void.”

To help sustain her project, Mistry was named the first Cynthia H. Sarnoski Science Faculty Fellow at Widener. The two-year fellowship, which Mistry received in 2013, was established by Sarnoski, an alumnae and member of the Widener Board of Trustees. The fellowship, funded by a gift to Taking the Lead—The Campaign for Widener, will rotate to lend support to science faculty members in their scholarship and research endeavors.

Benjamin and MistrySarnoski, who graduated from Widener with a chemistry degree in 1974 and retired from Pfizer in 2012 as a senior vice president of global compliance and quality systems, says that her Widener experience motivated her to establish the fellowship. The work she did as an undergraduate student with faculty left a lasting impression. “At the time, you don’t realize it, but the experience is really rich,” she said. “You have to carefully plan your course of action and then deal with problems and mistakes as they arise. Through the entire process, you are developing skills that are vital for when you leave the university and go out into the workforce.”

As evidenced by Widener’s growing Summer Research Program and subsequent end-of-summer research symposium, for which Sarnoski has served as a judge, student-faculty research collaborations continue to flourish at Widener. Sarnoski sees her fellowship as a way of ensuring this tradition grows and students continue to benefit from the same research experiences and “open access” to faculty as she once did.

Mistry is doing just that. She has involved Widener students in the earliest stages of her current research project. Joseph Chiaro ’10 originally expressed an interest in looking at the same genes in the fruit fly that may affect the integrity of the spinal cord in humans. This led to discussions about the best way to examine these genes, and the idea emerged of inflicting trauma to see how the genes responded. The baton was then passed to Megan Donegan ’12, who helped Mistry refine the protocol for her study.

After Donegan graduated, Mistry began working with Shijo Benjamin, a rising junior biochemistry major in the Medical Scholars Program, when Benjamin was just a freshman. He has helped Mistry experiment with different methods of wounding the fruit fly embryos. Much of their work has involved the meticulous process of wounding tens of thousands of embryos—each only one mm long—making sure the nerve cord is severed, and the animal survives the process.

Using an inverted microscope, they carefully poke the nerve cord with a glass needle, sufficiently enough to injure the cord, but not quite enough to destroy it. They then wash and freeze the embryos in sets. For a control, they put the embryos through the same process, but they do not injure them. “This whole experience thus far has taught me about perseverance as trial and error is an important part of the research process,” Benjamin said. “There was very little research—if any—about wounding fruit fly embryos, and we certainly destroyed a lot in our attempts to come up with an effective method ourselves, but we got there.”

Once Mistry and Benjamin collect the entire sample of embryos, they’ll send it away to an external lab for analysis. They have been joined by Christin Manilal, a freshman biology major, and together they will spend the summer analyzing and verifying their data and determining what genes to focus on for the study.

Mistry said genes that change significantly in the wounded embryos compared to the untouched embryos will get their attention. “This means something has been turned off or turned on,” she said. “Then, the next part is up to us. Will we want to look specifically at genes that affect inflammation or genes that affect growth? If we can identify that genes that affect growth have been turned off, does this mean that they can be turned back on down the line? These are the types of questions we are hoping to spark in the minds of other researchers who may build upon our study.”

Mistry says her research on fruit flies can lay the essential groundwork for future breakthroughs in human health treatments. “Nobody can study how to replace the function that is lost as a result of a spinal cord injury if we do not know what is lost and why,” Mistry said. “We are taking a first pass at this research by looking at the effects of trauma in a model system such as the fruit fly. Perhaps it will be one of my students who will take this research to the next level someday.”

In addition to working with her research students this summer, Mistry plans to incorporate some of the analysis in her 2015-2016 classes to introduce more students to the process of scientific investigation and the generation of skills they will require in their careers. She says that the fellowship has helped her divert the attention that she would have spent looking for money back into her research and her students.

With support from the fellowship, she hopes to take Benjamin with her to the Annual Drosophila Research Conference or “fly meeting” to present their work. “The research process teaches us that we never stop learning,” Mistry said.

As for Sarnoski, she’s very pleased with the project that bears her name. “Dr. Mistry’s research—and the extent to which she includes Widener undergraduate students—are great examples of the type of research and scholarship I hoped to reward through the fellowship,” she said.