Vol. 12 No. 11 - June, 2010

Biologists identify genes regulating sleeping and feeding

In the quest to better understand how the brain chooses between competing behaviors necessary for survival, scientists at UMass Medical School and New York University have isolated two genes in the fruit fly Drosophila that work together to choose between the need to sleep and the need to eat. The study, which appears in the online version of Current Biology, offers insights that may be used to understand sleep- and metabolism-related disorders in humans.

These findings are transformative

because they show that a gene can control sleep in a context-specific fashion.

Alex Keene, PhD

 “This work determines part of the neural mechanism that mediates a conflict in a hungry fly’s brain in deciding whether to seek food or sleep,” said Scott Waddell, PhD, associate professor of neurobiology. “It provides a foundation for understanding how the neural control of these two homeostatic behaviors is integrated in the brain.”

Previous research has shown that the systems controlling sleep and feeding in mammals are interconnected—sleep deprivation promotes feeding, whereas starvation suppresses sleep—but little was known about the genes responsible for this interaction. Because the genes that make up Drosophila’s internal clock have counterparts with similar functions in mammals, such as those controlling regulation of sleep and metabolism, the study of fruit fly genes can have implications for humans.

“This is a significant advance in how we approach behavioral genetics,” said Alex Keene, PhD, a post-doctoral researcher in NYU’s department of biology and the study’s lead author. “We know that the brain is wired to engage in more than one behavior at a time, but less clear is how the brain chooses between these behaviors. These findings are transformative because they show that a gene can control sleep in a context-specific fashion. In the future, we will need to study animals in different environmental conditions in order to fully understand how the brain controls behavior. ” Dr. Keene was a graduate student in Dr. Waddell’s lab and earned his PhD from the GSBS in 2007.

After initially screening around 2,000 genes, the researchers identified more than a dozen involved in the interaction between feeding and sleep. From this smaller group, they focused on the clock and cycle genes, which play a role in both the fruit fly and mammalian circadian, or biological, clock.