Fruit flies live long enough to have degenerative diseases? Yes, and Nina Sherwood studies one that impairs the ability to walk. A defective gene affects how the cells of the nervous system talk to muscle cells: the neurons, or transmitter cells, don’t form their synapses correctly and signals don’t go through. But that’s not the whole story. It now appears that the glial cells, once thought to be merely connective tissue, over-react to the malformed synapse and do more damage trying to repair it. Under the microscope Nina can see that glia in the mutant flies are much more active, reaching out appendages towards the neurons.
The good news is that if the glia are halted, the disease is much less devastating. As there is a corresponding disease in humans, this is a gratifying discovery indeed. But what draws Nina into the lab every day, day after day, is the “aesthetics of biology;” she studies biology because it is so beautiful, on every level.