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New biology faculty member Bing Zhang adds expertise on Drosophila neurobiology to MU

Oct. 30, 2013

Dr. Bing Zhang

Professor Bing Zhang joined the faculty of the Division of Biological Sciences this past September. (Photo courtesy Lisa Scheese)

Bing Zhang may have not written the book on Drosophila neurobiology, but he has written the laboratory manual and has taught the course that has trained a generation of neuroscientists. He also has an international reputation for his own work on the neural basis of behavior. When the Division of Biological Sciences began searching for someone to join its faculty to fill out its cellular and molecular biology research strength, Zhang’s name immediately made the short list.

At the time, Zhang was an associate professor of zoology at the University of Oklahoma, where he taught both basic and advanced courses on neurobiology and physiology. He officially joined MU’s faculty this past September.

Zhang says he was attracted to the diversity of neurobiologists and cell biologists at MU. “We have a group of really good neuroscientists here who study insects, crustacean, Drosophila, lamprey, frogs, all the way up to zebrafish and mouse. With the exception of c. elegans, we have almost every model system.”

The diversity, according to Zhang, opens doors for expanding his own studies. “I am interested in combining Drosophila studies with studies in mouse, so it was a major attraction for me to have colleagues in the same department who are working on a range of organisms with whom I can collaborate.”

Zhang earned his Ph.D. in neurobiology and behavior at Cornell University and subsequently taught at the University of Texas before joining the zoology department at OU. He is widely published and is co-editor of the acclaimed Drosophila Neurobiology: A Laboratory Manual (Cold Springs Harbor Laboratory 2010), an essential how-to manual for all researchers who use the fruit fly to study the nervous system. The book draws on Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory’s long-running Neurobiology of Drosophila course, which Zhang co-taught and co-directed for many years.

His current research focuses on how the brain produces locomotion. Zhang says he uses locomotion to learn about glial cells, the cells that insulate nerve cells by laying down a fatty coating of myelin. “Our lab is interested in the neurocircuitry level, how neurons and glial cells work together to produce behavior. You can study one neuron or one particular gene in detail, but it’s not powerful enough to predict overall brain function. Our approach is to ask the question: which group of neurons or glial cells are critical for a certain behavior, specifically locomotion?”

It’s the same idea, Zhang says, as studies of brain injuries or lesions, such as a stroke-induced speech impairment. “In that case, you’re not studying specific genes but rather a group of cells in a brain area that has a behavioral consequence. We take that similar lesion approach, except instead of poking holes in the fly brain we genetically manipulate a subset of cells in their brain and see what happens to behavior. If you know that this group of cells that form a network in the brain are critical for a specific behavior, then you also know where the behavior comes from or which critical component of the nervous system is involved in a particular behavior.”

Traditionally thought to provide only a supporting role for nerve cells, recently glial cells have been shown to be necessary for rapid nerve signal transmission. Loss or breakdown of myelin also has been implicated in neurodegenerative diseases, such as multiple sclerosis. Such discoveries have highlighted how little we know about these cells, Zhang says. “If we don’t know much about neurons, we know even less about glial cells.”

To zoom in on a group of glial cells, Zhang’s lab developed a novel genetic system called FINGR that allows scientists to isolate specific cells and alter their behaviors to assess the impact on behavior. FINGR refines the powerful Gal4-UAS genetic system in Drosophila by increasing its specificity, Zhang says. “The FINGR system adds a powerful tool to the arsenal at the disposal of researchers for mapping neural circuits and for general clonal analysis in Drosophila.”

That’s what’s nice about Drosophila, says Zhang. “Obviously, none of this manipulation can be done with humans. However, the general principles we learn from Drosophila should provide some guidelines about which group of cells, for example glial cells, near which part of the brain are critical for a specific function. If we know that, then maybe we can target that group of cells in the human brain to better understand how glial cells and neurons communicate.”

Pinned to a bulletin board outside the Zhang lab in Tucker Hall is a help wanted flyer. The flyer, which features a cartoon image of a fruit fly reading the personals in the newspaper, asks “Do you want to push flies and study their brains?” To the uninitiated, like myself, to “push flies” means exactly what it says: “To sort flies under a microscope, we use a brush to push them. It’s why we’re called fly pushers,” Zhang explains.

Among the fly pushers in Zhang’s lab are two postdoctoral fellows, Mojgan Padash Barmchi and Weijie Liu; one graduate student, Victoria (Tori) Balise; and a lab manager, Laura Wax. Balise, Barmchi, and Liu all followed Zhang to MU from OU, and Wax joined the lab in October. He also has four MU undergraduates doing research in his lab. Zhang is pleased with the response he has had from undergraduates.

“One thing that impresses me so far is that so many MU students seem to think about starting research early, which is good. The longer you have them, the more you can teach them,” says Zhang.

Hearing him talk about students, it is clear why Zhang is the recipient of two teaching awards from his previous institutions. “Students really care if you care about them. They don’t have to get an A grade to see that you’re a good professor. They care whether you treat them equally well, fairly, and you care about their progress.”

Their success, he says, is his success. “I cannot measure my effort by a Nature paper or a Science paper. I never will. It only takes one student from a class who gets truly excited about what you’re doing who may actually go on to become a great neurobiologist or great cell biologist or whatever. That’s what makes my job worthwhile.”

Dr. Zhang will be talking about his research and what studies of fruit flies reveal about the human brain on Saturday, November 2, as part of the Saturday Morning Science program.

Images shows the group on a bench outside of Tucker Hall

Prof. Zhang (center) with some members of his lab outside Tucker Hall: (back row, l-r) Weijie Liu, Tori Balise, Christina Wang, Hannah Brenton, (sitting, l-r) Audrey Wagner, and Kayla Howard. (Photo courtesy Lisa Scheese)

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Written by: Melody Kroll

Related research strengths:
Behavior, Cell Biology, Genetics & Genomics, Molecular Biology, Neurobiology