Deceptively simple fruit fly may provide life-saving lessons according to UW-Green Bay researchers

The deceptively simple Drosophila melanogaster (fruit fly) may have life-saving lessons to share with the significantly more complex Homo sapiens, lessons that could lead to future changes in treatment of traumatic brain injury (TBI).

Douglas Brusich Fruit Fly Research-4According to a peer-reviewed research paper published recently in the journal Fly[1],  results from studies at the University of Wisconsin-Green Bay suggest three significant findings with potential implications for humans:

  • First, repetitive, moderate blows to the head at short intervals have potential for serious injury. There appears to be a cumulative effect from a series of moderate blows within a short time frame, which can be as harmful as a single significant blow.
  • Second, the time frame for increased harm caused by repeated injuries can operate at shorter timescales than has been previously appreciated. The research suggests that consideration must be paid to repetitive injuries that occur closely together.
  • Finally, TBI caused an initial impairment of motor coordination, temporary recovery, and then a second, delayed impairment before full recovery was achieved. Single severe injuries caused the same impairment as repetitive moderate blows. Thus, if only using coordination measures, there is a risk for improperly determining an individual has recovered from a TBI event, whether severe or moderate, at an early time-point, when in fact they are still in the process of fully recovering.

By now you’re probably asking, “All of this from a fruit fly?”

“That’s a question I get a lot,” smiles Doug Brusich, assistant professor of Human Biology and leader of the research team. “People wonder why we use fruit flies and how results from those studies can have any relevance to humans.”

Brusich recited the reasons with the ease of someone who has answered this question many times before:

“Fruit fly genes mirror human genes very closely,” said Brusich, “so while findings may not be completely analogous, they usually point us to something that might be worthy of further study in mammals, including humans.

“Their genes are also easier to work with than mammal genes,” he continued. “For example, where mammals might have nine genes that govern sodium channels, fruit flies have one. If you make a change in that sodium channel and observe a result, you have a potential indication of a similar importance in mammals.

“Fruit flies also breed quickly, from larvae to adults in 10 days, and have 80-day life cycles,” said Brusich, “so we can develop hundreds of flies for study in a relatively short time. And we can use flies at varying stages of  their lives to see if age has any impact on the results.

“We also have to consider the financial and ethical aspects of our research,” he added. “Fruit flies are very inexpensive to maintain in the lab, especially compared to the cost of other potential subject animals like mice. And the ethical questions that arise when inflicting brain damage on flies are much less complex.

“It’s also important that the ways we produce injuries on flies in the lab is as similar to the ways humans experience TBIs,” Brusich concluded, “The results from fruit fly research come from impact and rotational forces that closely resemble forces humans might experience.”

Douglas Brusich Fruit Fly Research-3

Expanding the research to new levels

Brusich and his team at UW-Green Bay—former undergraduate student Lauren Putnam (2018), and current undergraduates Nathaniel Disher, Brooke Kalata and Ashley Willes—knew the literature contained well documented fruit fly studies of TBI based on single, high-impact strikes. They wondered, though, whether the methods in those studies could be used to study milder injuries, which are more common but less understood.

“There were two reasons we pursued this path,” explained Brusich. “First, mild head trauma is quite common and affects human health. Roughly 70-90% of the greater than 1.5 million annual TBI events resulting in hospital visits in the United States are classified as mild, however, just as many mild injuries are estimated to go unreported. Additionally, we have evidence that mild head injuries which fail to even meet classic criteria for a concussion result in changes in brain health.

“Second,” he continued, “mild injuries have so far been poorly studied or modeled by mammalian or fly models of TBI. This is in part because mild injuries don’t always generate noticeable outcomes. As a result, we have little information about mild TBI.

“Expanding our studies to reduced levels of severity opens the possibility of investigating similarities and/or differences in predisposition and consequences in response to severe versus mild TBI,” he concluded.

Douglas Brusich Fruit Fly Research-2

Is it dead or just sleeping?

Anyone who has swatted a house fly has seen the immediate effect of a (lucky) strike. The fly is temporarily stunned and may sit motionless for a short time before recovering and flying off to annoy you again.

It turns out the temporary disorientation we casually observe is one of the behaviors researchers look for after striking flies in the lab. They also have other behavioral clues to watch for and record.

But those clues are subtle and you can’t have a lab full of researchers swatting willy-nilly at a room full of flies that are smaller than a house fly’s wing. For one thing, the lab is only the size of a galley kitchen. For another, how would you observe and record any of the fruit flies’ behavior in such an environment? How do you set up a study that provides predictable levels of “swat” energy and enables recording of the results?

Brusich and his team arrived at a MacGyver-like solution by adapting a compression spring-powered device developed by researchers at UW-Madison specifically for fruit fly research. The original device produced a strike (a “swat”) by attaching a vial of 20 to 60 flies to the end of the 10-inch-long coil spring, affixing the spring horizontally to a padded surface, pulling the spring upward to a 90-degree deflection from the table, then releasing the spring to return to its horizontal position, stunning the flies in the vial.

This method has become known as the High-Impact Trauma (HIT) method and has been widely adopted in fly research.

For his team’s purpose, Brusich modified the device so it could reliably and accurately produce single or multiple strikes at 60-, 70-, 80- and 90-degree deflections. This enabled the team to examine the results of repetitive HIT events to about 34,000 fruit flies across varying levels of severity, from mild to severe.

The team also combined low-tech and high-tech solutions to study the fruit flies’ ability to walk (geotaxis) after TBI events. They used a plywood frame and elastic bands to hold several vials upright, then dropped the frame three times from a set height, forcing the flies to the bottom of the vial.

They then used a Logitech webcam to watch as the flies reacted: some scrambled to the top, some remained confused and some stayed at the bottom. Using screen shots and statistical modeling software, the flies’ actions were catalogued, timed and plotted.

The results of the study confirmed other researchers’ findings for severe TBI effects (strikes at 90-degree deflections) and produced the three novel results described above (arising from repetitive strikes at varying intervals that produce less severe, but cumulative, TBI effects).

“We were happy that our study produced results so consistent with what others had found,” said Brusich. “And we think the findings that resulted from expanding the methodology to less severe levels of TBI have potential implications for further study in fruit flies and mammals. Future findings could change the way we assess and treat TBI.”

From TBI to epilepsy and Alzheimer’s disease

Brusich is already taking information from his TBI research into others areas of exploration.

“I initially got into studying epilepsy from experiments I conducted as part of my graduate thesis,” said Brusich. “I started using TBI in part to model post-traumatic epilepsy, which my lab is now studying. More broadly, TBI findings are relevant to aging and neurodegeneration, such as from dementias like Alzheimer’s, and so the more we learn from this model the better. TBI is also a trending topic in research, so the additional perks are that it is garnering more funding and becoming an attractive and enjoyable area of research for prospective students.

“I have long wanted my role to be a split research-teaching one at a primarily undergraduate school like UW-Green Bay,” he continued, “and the simple, low-cost set up of my lab is appropriate for undergraduate involvement. The supportive environment created by my dean and by the school in general has enabled us to carve out this niche for ourselves versus the research functions at some of the larger schools.”

Aspiring researchers welcome

Brusich hopes other students who share his passion for fundamental research will consider joining him.

“I always mention my research interests in the courses I teach and ask students to chat with me if they think they might be interested in research,” said Brusich.

“I compile a list of these students and others who have heard about the opportunity, then invite students from the list to interviews held once or twice a year. Students are always welcome to contact me (email is best) if they are interested in research.”


[1] Lauren J Putnam, Ashley M Willes, Brooke E Kalata, Nathaniel D Disher & Douglas J Brusich (2019): Expansion of a fly TBI model to four levels of injury severity reveals synergistic effects of repetitive injury for moderate injury conditions, Fly, DOI: 10.1080/19336934.2019.1664363.

Story by freelance writer Jim Streed ’05, photos by Dan Moore, UW-Green Bay photographer and videographer

You’re invited: Tiny Earth in Titletown, Dec. 6

Antibiotic resistance is one of the biggest threats to global health, food security, and development today. Tiny Earth is a global network of educators who teach a research course aimed at discovering new antibiotics. The course provides students with the opportunity for original thinking and scientific discovery, thereby capturing the very aspects of science that inspire students to pursue STEM careers. Students are inspired not just by the chance to do authentic research, but to be a part of a global effort addressing a looming public health crisis.

On Friday, Dec. 6, 2019, students from across the state, including UW-Green Bay, will present their research findings about antibiotic resistance at the Tiny Earth Symposium at Lambeau Field from 5 to 8 p.m. The keynote speaker, Director of the Wisconsin Institute for Discovery (WID) and founder of Tiny Earth, Jo Handelsman, will discuss the related crisis of soil erosion. MCW-Green Bay and area businesses, including Cherney microbiological, will be participating in the event as well.

Tiny Earth inspires and retains students in the sciences while addressing one of the most pressing global health challenges of our century, being the diminishing supply of effective antibiotics. This year’s event will feature research of soil provided by the Green Bay Packers practice field in September that was analyzed by UW-Green Bay students, with their findings being presented on Dec. 6.

Registration is free and includes a free tour of Lambeau Field and hors d’oeuvres

All are welcome, but please register.

Popular ‘Museum of Natural Inspiration’ moves to Door County Gallery

Due to the popularity of the Lawton Gallery’s first exhibition of the year, “Museum of Natural Inspiration: Artists Explore the Richter Collection,” a selection of the artwork will now be hosted at the Donald and Carol Kress Pavilion in Egg Harbor from Nov. 5, 2019 to Feb. 29, 2020. An opening reception will be held Tuesday, Nov. 5 from 4 to 7 p.m. The reception is free and open to the public, and it includes refreshments.

The Lawton exhibition was originally organized to raise awareness of the Richter Museum of Natural History, which is located on the first floor of Mary Ann Cofrin Hall.

Poster Artists Explore the Richter Collection
Poster for event

Associate Prof. Daniel Meinhardt (Human Biology and Women’s and Gender Studies), and curator of the Richter Museum, will be giving introductory remarks on the exhibit at 5:45 p.m at the opening reception. In addition, The Open Door Bird Sanctuary will have live raptors from 5:30 to 6:30 p.m., with a program at 6 p.m.

 

Campus mourns loss of lecturer Don Drewiske

Members of the Green Bay Campus learned of the passing of  Associate Lecturer Donald Drewiske, who passed away unexpectedly on Oct. 16, 2019. The lifelong educator taught both biology and math at UW-Green Bay. The De Pere native began his teaching career at Abbott Pennings High School, then working for the Oneida Tribe, and lastly UW-Green Bay, primarily teaching courses in Biology and Math. According to his obituary, “he loved to read, play with his dogs, try new recipes, go running, build furniture, garden, and complete crossword puzzles. He had recently begun to pursue his interest in painting and completed a large collection of
beautiful landscapes. Don enjoyed outdoor activities in every season, and was a great nature lover. He looked forward to family gatherings and was a proud husband and father.”  Read the full obituary. Friends may call from 2 to 4 p.m. Saturday, Oct. 26, 2019 at Ryan Funeral Home, 305 N. Tenth Street, De Pere. A memorial service will be held at 3:30 p.m. with Deacon Mike Vander Bloomen presiding. Memorial donations made in his honor may be sent to Happily Ever After (heanokill.org) or the Human Biology Program Fund, UW-Green Bay Foundation, UW-Green Bay, Cofrin Library Suite 805, 2420 Nicolet Drive, Green Bay, WI 54311-7001.

Concordia’s School of Pharmacy and UW-Green Bay sign 3+4 dual degree agreement

Concordia University announced the signing of a 3+4 Dual Degree agreement with the University of Wisconsin-Green Bay. In the agreement, students complete three years of undergraduate coursework at UW-Green Bay and, after admittance into CUW’s School of Pharmacy, use coursework from their first year of Doctor of Pharmacy (PharmD) studies to apply toward a Bachelor of Science in Human Biology (health science emphasis) from the UW-Green Bay College of Science, Engineering and Technology as they continue to work toward their Doctor of Pharmacy degree at Concordia. See more via Concordia’s School of Pharmacy and UW-GB sign 3+4 dual degree agreement.

Faculty note: Collaboration between faculty (Zhu, Reilly, Olson Hunt, Horvarter) leads to publication

An eight-year span of data collection, two years of data analysis, and hard work over summer 2019 resulted in a collaborative publication by Associate Prof. Janet Reilly (Nursing), Associate Prof. Le Zhu (Human Biology), Associate Prof. Megan Olson Hunt (Mathematics & Statistics), Senior Lecturer Rebecca Hovarter (Nursing) and a retired public health nurse, M. Brigid Flood. “Comparison of Rural Childhood BMI Percentiles: Prevalence and Trends in a Midwest County, 2008–2016” was published by SAGE Publishing and The Journal of School Nursing. The article ABSTRACT: The number of children who are obese and overweight continues as a public health challenge despite decades of research. The purpose of this article is to describe trends in body mass index (BMI) percentile data collected from 11- to 14-year-old school children in 2008–2009 and 2015–2016 in rural Wisconsin. The BMI percentiles from 1,347 students were compared using time, gender, age, and school (public vs. parochial) as predictors. The trend over time indicated a decrease in students of healthy weight and an increase in those overweight or obese. Also noted was a significantly higher proportion of children who were overweight or obese in parochial compared to public schools. Discussed are the observed trends, community-wide initiatives implemented, as well as how schools can employ a more comprehensive approach to childhood obesity that first ensures community readiness and involves school, home, and community.

Makenna Pucker

Manitowoc Campus student Makenna Pucker named ‘Promise Scholar’

Congratulations to Manitowoc Campus student Makenna Pucker ’20, who has been selected as a 2019 Coca-Cola Leaders of Promise Scholar and will receive a $1,000 scholarship designated for Phi Theta Kappa Honor Society members.

Pucker outlined her future plans in this video. The Rosendale, Wis. native, plans to transfer to UW-Green Bay and is looking into a double major in Human Biology and Environmental Sciences. Eventually she hopes to become a psychiatrist or enter a medical field such as genetic counseling.

Associate Prof. Amy Kabrhel (Chemistry) is the advisor of Phi Theta Kappa on the Manitowoc Campus.

The Leaders of Promise Scholarship, sponsored by the Coca-Cola Scholars Foundation, recognizes 200 Phi Theta Kappa members with awards totaling $200,000. Recipients were selected by a panel of independent judges from nearly 900 applicants. Promise Scholars are selected based on outstanding academic achievement and demonstrated leadership potential.

The Leaders of Promise Scholarship Program was launched in 2001 to assist new Phi Theta Kappa members in obtaining an associate degree and encourage participation in Society programs.

Phi Theta Kappa is an honor society recognizing the academic achievement of students at associate degree-granting colleges and helping them to grow as scholars and leaders. The Society is made up of more than 3.5 million members and nearly 1,300 chapters in 11 nations. Learn more at ptk.org.

 

UW-Green Bay student wins third place at Wisconsin Science and Tech. Symposium

UW-Green Bay undergraduate student Akanksha Gurtu (Human Biology, Philosophy) won third place out of 63 poster entries at the Wisconsin Science and Technology Symposium (WSTS) at UW-Stout, July 22 and 23, 2019. Gurtu works as an undergraduate research student with Assistant Prof. Mandeep Singh Bakshi (NAS). Her work highlighted the applications of functional magnetic nanomaterials in removing bacterial contamination from drinking water.