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Mutations Interpreter

Barry Ganetzky’s fruit fly research expands world’s comprehension of neural function.

It may surprise some that Barry Ganetzky ’71 LAS, a celebrated biologist, originally wanted to be a chemist. “Chemists made things,” says Ganetzky, a professor of biological science at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. “What do biologists make? What are they paid to do?”

He found out upon delving deeply into biological research as an undergraduate at UIC. An honors project led to a chance encounter with a young developmental geneticist named Michael Cummings, who was studying a variant of the fruit fly known as Drosophila oogenesis.

Rather than lasting a few months as originally intended, the project engaged the two researchers for two years. Ganetzky was hooked.

His passion led to a groundbreaking career in the field of genetics, where his work has saved lives and added to the world’s comprehension of neural function. In 1997, Ganetzky’s discovery of a potassium ion channel and its contribution to the electric activity that regulates the human heartbeat prompted the FDA to require screenings of new medications for their potential to trigger such occurrences.

His research has generated new information about the structure, function and regulation of key proteins, such as those needed for the release of neurotransmitters, and has informed science’s understanding of Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s diseases. Such trailblazing discoveries resulted in his induction into the National Academy of Science in 2006.

Ganetzky says that, at first, he didn’t intend to study human illness—it just so happened that his studies of fruit flies weren’t unlike the study of human genetics, as fruit flies and humans share biological processes common to all living organisms.

“My initial interest was in life itself,” the biologist says. “To me, it’s not interesting that neurons die. What’s interesting is that, in most instances, they don’t. How is it these non-splitting cells last for 40 or 50 or 60 years? What are the proteins and pathways that keep them alive?

“If we improve our understanding of basic biology, we’ll also come to understand why it can go awry.”

Ganetzky likens each of his research projects to a black box, and his discoveries to doors that lead within. (He says he sees openings in places where others see only corridors.) In studying the impact of mutations on neural function, he uses nontraditional approaches—rather than look for mutations, Ganetzky and his colleagues inject mutagens into fruit flies to observe their impact on neural function.

“What makes it such great fun is that we have no preconceived notions of what we’ll discover. We’re not starting with a hypothesis,” he says.

All he needs to perform his research, he says, is a dissecting microscope, an etherizer, a paintbrush—and those fruit flies.   

—John Gregerson

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