12/14/10 8:25 am Age: 4 yrs

Studying Mutant Flies

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By: Becky St. Clair

Biology grad doing genetic research

Sean Hayes graduated from WWU in 2008 with a degree in biology. He has since landed a job at a research facility in Virginia using flies to study genetics.

Sean Hayes, a 2008 biology graduate of Walla Walla University, completed his masters in biology on the WWU campus as well, receiving his degree just this year.  His education and research work in biology landed him a job at Howard Hughes Medical Institute, one of the largest privately-funded biomedical research organizations in the world.

Located on the Janelia Farm Research Campus in Ashburn, Virginia, which is owned by HHMI, Hayes is specifically focusing on neurobiology through highly collaborative research.  He is part of the Fly Olympiad Team there.

“Basically we have several thousand mutant lines of flies that have different genes that have been artificially introduced,” explains Hayes.  “We are continually experimenting to figure out what these different genes are causing.”

The different experiments involve flies jumping gaps, running toward lights, flying toward lights, and more, hence the term “Olympiad.”  Hayes’ experiment is called the observation assay.

“In this particular experiment we’re activating certain genes in their brains that cause the flies to do exhibit strange behaviors,” says Hayes.  “I’m designing the experiment and will eventually be recording the behaviors I see the flies exhibiting under a microscope.  The purpose of this is so that we can eventually figure out what genes and, more specifically, what neurons cause what behaviors.”

By learning more about what neurons create which behaviors in flies, researchers such as Hayes are making progress in finding ways to see what specific neurons do in the human brain.  This has man practical implications, such as fully-functional artificial limbs that could even feel touch and temperature like a real limb would.

“I feel very fortunate to have a job where I not only collect data, but also get to give input on how that data is collected,” says Hayes. “The people here are wonderful to work with, and the work itself is challenging and rewarding. I'm thrilled to be part of such a large project with such expansive applications.”

For more information about the Janelia Farm Research Campus, click the link below.


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