NSF CAREER Winner Jack Bateman on Studying Gene Regulation in Fruit Flies

Biology professor Jack Bateman, recently awarded a NSF CAREER grant, explains the research behind his project “Mechanisms of cis-/trans-promoter competition in Drosophila.”

fruit-flyMy lab uses the fruit fly Drosophila melanogaster as a model system to better understand gene regulation – that is, how genes can be turned on and off. Drosophila has several advantages for this type of research – for example, it is very easy to make changes to its genome, allowing you to ask simple questions like “what happens to this gene if I change this bit, or that bit?” Plus, fruit flies are very easy and inexpensive to culture, making them perfect for undergraduate-focused research. Perhaps most importantly, at the molecular level, there are great similarities between how genes are regulated in Drosophila vs. humans (among many other organisms), so by studying Drosophila, we have the opportunity to better understand many life forms.

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In a set of Drosophila cells, a specific enhancer/promoter combination causes a gene to be expressed (indicated by fluorescence)

My NSF CAREER project focuses on two components that genes rely on to become activated, called the “enhancer” and the “promoter.” These are simple little bits of DNA that are each part of virtually all genes. You might think of them as a lock and key for a gene, where the enhancer must unlock the promoter in order to activate the gene that they control. However, exactly how they do this is not completely understood. Furthermore, both enhancers and promoters come in many different types – it is not at all clear which enhancers can act on which promoters, or (to follow the analogy) which keys can fit which locks. Thus, our experiments are aimed at better understanding the fundamental relationships between enhancers and promoters. Both the research and educational components of my project will address this big-picture question.

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