Researchers at Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory (CSHL) say that they have identified a protein in fruit flies that alters the strength of synaptic connections called plasticity, which play a vital role in both memory formation and learning.
Dr. Josh Dubnau, an assistant professor in a neuroscience lab at CSHL, says that studying the Pumilio gene in the fly brain may be helpful in discerning how memory works in the human brain because a similar gene is present in humans.
In a previous study, it was found that Pumilio acts with other genes to shape the developing fly embryo, by modifying how much of various proteins are made in different regions of a cell.
Dr. Dubnau hypothesized that the gene acts similarly to affect memory formation.
e teamed up with computational biologist Dr. Michael Zhang and gene expression expert Dr. Adrian Krainer, both belonging to CSHL, with a view to exploring this idea.
The researchers first identified which of the 151 genes known to be active in synapses were most likely to interact with Pum, the protein made by Pumilio.
Back in the laboratory, Dr. Krainer's team confirmed that Pum interacts with several of the protein-precursors identified by them, including one arising from a gene called dlg1.
The researchers insist that a gene very similar to dlg1 acts in synapse formation in mammals.
During the study, the researchers genetically engineered flies that made especially large amounts of Pum protein in a brain region called the mushroom body where memory storage occurs.
The team then confirmed that, in such flies, the protein product of the dlg1 gene was dramatically reduced in this brain region, an observation that supports the notion that Pumilio helps build memories by selectively altering individual synapses.
The study has been published in PLoS Computational Biology.