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View a video of Lawrence Zipursky's January 2003 Faculty Research Lecture

When it comes to scientific breakthroughs, consider the lowly fruit fly. Kitchen pests to the rest of us, for researchers like Lawrence Zipursky, the diminutive members of the genus Drosophila constitute a scientist’s gold mine, promising to reveal secrets about the nature of life and even pave the way to cures for human disease.

This hasn’t always been the case. While fruit flies have been under the microscope for more than a century in genetics research, Zipursky notes, “The belief that a fruit fly could really tell you something about human biology was for many years an issue of faith.”

Professor of biological chemistry and a Howard Hughes Medical Institute investigator, Zipursky works out of a fifth-floor lab swarming with test tube vials and bottles of flies in various degrees of cultivation in the MacDonald Medical Research Laboratories on south campus.

In the past decade, faith in the fly is being replaced by fact as Zipursky and colleagues around the world have discovered stunning parallels between fruit flies and human beings.

“One of the really remarkable developments is finding how similar basic processes — cellular, mental and neurobiological processes — are between fruit flies and mammals,” Zipursky says. “What we find in this modest little fly is going to be relevant all the way up to humans.”

Zipursky developed his passion for research during his summers off from Oberlin College, when he worked at a lab that used genetics to study bacterial viruses and E. coli.

“It was just about this time — the mid-1970s — that recombinant DNA technology was beginning, and I loved it,” he recalls. He received his Ph.D. in molecular biology from Albert Einstein College of Medicine in New York, then did postdoctoral work in neurogenetics at Caltech.

Zipursky focuses his research on the fruit fly’s visual system to pursue fundamental questions about how brain neurons form the extraordinarily complex and precise networks of synapses that make up the neural circuits’ underlying behavior.

In painstaking work, he and his research team have made sense of some portions of the fruit fly’s 250,000 or so neurons. Using isolated fruit fly mutants, they have identified many genes, along with the cell surface proteins they encode, that regulate the neuronal connections throughout the brain. What’s more, they have found that many of these proteins are closely related to proteins in humans, which suggests that they play similar roles in wiring the human brain.

“This is really an adventure,” Zipursky says. “We’re in the thick of the problem, and it’s great fun.”

Story by Judy Lin-Eftekhar for UCLA Today. Photos by Reed Hutchinson, UCLA Photographic Services. Design by Daphne Helfand.

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