How are 100 billion cells created, each with specific duties? The human brain is evidence that nature can achieve this. Researchers at Linköping University (LiU) have now taken a step closer to solving this mystery.
“Knowledge about the mechanisms that diversify neurons and sustain their diversity is necessary in order to cultivate and replace nerve cells in the future,” says Mattias Alenius (pictured), Assistant Professor of Neuroscience.
Alenius and his research team at the Department of Experimental and Clinical Medicine at LiU seek the answer to this pivotal question from a smaller perspective: the fruit fly’s olfactory system.
The humble fly’s olfactory system consists of 1200 olfactory neurons (humans have 6 million) divided into 34 groups. Each group responds to a particular set of odors, since all the neurons of the group use only one of the olfactory receptors present in the fly’s antennas. Together, the receptors provide the fly with the ability to distinguish between thousands of odors: one olfactory receptor – one neuron group, simple yet complex.
Alenius and his colleagues are the first to go through all of the fruit fly’s 753 gene regulatory genes, called transcription factors. They have identified a set of 7 factors that, in different combinations, are required to create each of the 34 neuron groups in the antenna. A surprising finding is that most transcription factors perform two tasks simultaneously: they can activate odorant receptors’ expression, while at the same time deactivating others in the same cell.
Alenius explains, “This is one of the many tricks that are useful to know for the future if you want to make and cultivate each of the many thousands of nerve cell groups that make up our brains.”
Illustration: Linkoeping Universitet.
Linkoeping Universitet News Release (03/14/12)
Science Daily (03/14/12)
e! Science News (03/14/12)
Abstract (Public Library of Science Biology; 10(3) (03/13/12))