Our lab uses the nematode C. elegans and the crayfish P. virginalis to study the molecular, neuronal, and evolutionary
underpinnings of behavior. We apply these insights to the study of neural and
muscular pathologies. Our approach is integrative and combines forward and
reverse genetics, immunohistochemistry, calcium imaging, optogenetics, and
in-depth behavioral analysis.
We currently focus on three main topics: 1) magnetic field detection and orientation, 2) the etiology and prevention of degeneration during Duchenne muscular dystrophy, and 3) the adaptation of modern molecular techniques to crustacean neuroscience. Additionally, teams of undergraduate researchers in our lab also conduct independent research in other topics including: a) investigating the effects of Martian gravity and magnetic field on terrestrial organisms; b) determining the usefulness of nematodes in the study of Angelman syndrome; and studying the role of mechanoreceptors in c) proprioception, and d) locomotion.
field detection and orientation:
Many organisms detect and use the magnetic field of
the earth to navigate their environment. While much progress has been made in
this exciting field, no magneto transduction mechanism has been identified in
any animal. After demonstrating that nematodes can detect and orient to
magnetic fields, our lab identified the first set of neurons capable of
detecting this invisible force field. Our lab presently works to: 1)
characterize the magnetic orientation behavior of C. elegans; 2) identify the molecular transduction mechanism
allowing worms to detect magnetic fields; 3) determine how the magnetosensory neurons
encode magnetic information; 4) evaluate the effects of non-terrestrial
magnetic fields on animal viability.
Duchenne muscular dystrophy is a lethal disease
affecting 1 in 3500 males caused by deleterious mutations in DYS1, a giant gene
encoding the dystrophin protein. Progress in this field is hindered by lack of
animal models faithfully recreating the disease beyond the genetic lesion (e.g.
muscular degeneration, loss of ambulation). We devised the first assay able to fully
recapitulate the progression of the disease in animals. We then conducted a genetic
screen and isolated mutants able to overcome the effects of the disease. My students now work to identify these
mutations hoping to bring relief to those suffering with this disease. We are also
using this and similar assays to evaluate different types of exercise that
might prove protective for dystrophic musculature.
Adaptation of molecular techniques to crustaceans:
For over a century crustaceans have been successfully used to study behavior, development, and neuroscience. Their accessible nervous systems allow for multiple recordings to be obtained from living nervous systems under a plethora of experimental conditions. In collaboration with the Stein lab (at ISU), and the Lyko lab (Heidelberg, Germany) we are working to annotate the genome of the Marbled crayfish (P. virginalis), and to adapt mopdern molecular tools for their use in crustacean neuroscience.