Believe it or not, when the human genome is compared to the fruit fly genome, about 60 percent of the genes are closely related. When it gets down to the molecular level, we're more similar to fruit flies than you might think.

Julie Gates

Professor Julie Gates, biology, is proud of the fact that many of her students stay in contact with her even years after graduation. "While they're here, we work together very closely," she says. "That's one of the great things about Bucknell – students here are taught by faculty, not grad students."

The focus of Gates' research is on how cells move and change shape as tissues and organs are formed during very early stages of development. In order to observe this phenomenon, Gates has her students examine fruit flies in the embryonic stage, long before they are flies or even maggots.

The biology department's Imaging Center is equipped with a state-of-the-art confocal microscope. Students use the instrument to observe tissue and organ formation in real time and freeze individual frames to compare later. The confocal's high degree of magnification allows students to easily see the long, narrow cellular extensions known as filopodia that single cells send forth in search of similar cells to bond with.

Altering the relative levels of different proteins, such as Abl and Ena, causes filopodia to behave differently, often creating unusual results. "At first, my students are amazed when I tell them I don't know what the results will be," she says. "But that's research. We're breaking new ground here."

Gates' team's work has important implications for human health. For instance, Chronic Myelogenous Leukemia is characterized by uncontrolled growth of a certain type of cell within bone marrow and is caused by an imbalance of the same Abl and Ena proteins that Gates and her students study. "Believe it or not," Gates explains, "when the human genome is compared to the fruit fly genome, about 60 percent of the genes are closely related. When it gets down to the molecular level, we're more similar to fruit flies than you might think."

Gates says about half her students go on to medical school. The rest of her students go to graduate school or get jobs as research technicians. Having hands-on experience with the confocal microscope and other high-grade pieces of equipment in the Bucknell biology department prepares them well for that, she says. 

But wherever they end up, she's always happy when they keep in touch. "My students are absolutely the best part of my job," she says. 

Posted October 3, 2013


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