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News Release

Office of News and Information
Johns Hopkins University
3003 N. Charles Street, Suite 100
Baltimore, Maryland 21218-3843
Phone: (410) 516-7160 | Fax (410) 516-5251

February 28, 2002
CONTACT: Phil Sneiderman
(410) 516-7907

Undergraduate Unravels Genetic Mysteries in
Pesky Fruit Flies

Studying Mutations in Bug's Salivary Gland Could Yield
Clues to Human Development

A biomedical engineering major at The Johns Hopkins University has been breeding mutant fruit flies and studying their offspring to help find a gene responsible for thwarting the bug's development. Supported by an undergraduate research grant from the university, Christy A. Comeaux, 21, is working with a prominent cell biologist whose research into the way fruit fly embryos create salivary glands could shed light on the development of human organs.

"Many of the genes in fruit flies are very similar to human genes," said Comeaux, a Johns Hopkins junior and a 1999 graduate of Port Neches-Groves High School in Texas. "By studying how these genes work, we can come to a better understanding of how genetic mechanisms work in humans."

Christy Comeaux
Photo by Will Kirk

Comeaux gained her first genetics lab experience by working at the M.D. Anderson Cancer Center in Houston during the summer of 2000. When she returned for her sophomore year at Johns Hopkins, she looked for a related research job and joined the lab team directed by Deborah J. Andrew, an associate professor in the Department of Cell Biology and Anatomy at the Johns Hopkins School of Medicine. "Because of my summer job, I'd had some training in genetic research techniques, but I had never worked with fruit flies," Comeaux said. "Luckily, I was surrounded by many people in the Andrew lab who were very patient and willing to answer my questions."

The undergraduate soon learned how to breed flies that carry a genetic mutation. The bugs meet inside a plastic bottle. The underside of the bottle's stopper is coated with a sticky substance that collects the fertilized eggs. Comeaux learned to apply an antibody stain to these fly embryos to identify the cells that are forming the insect's salivary gland. Under a high-powered microscope she was able to see how a genetic mutation can distort the shape of the developing gland and impair its ability to move into proper position within the growing embryo.

Undergraduate Christy Comeaux uses a microscope to sort the fruit flies she breeds for genetic research. Supervising her research are Prof. Deborah Andrew and Pamela Bradley, a postdoctoral fellow.
Photo by Will Kirk

Comeaux received a Provost's Undergraduate Research Award that allowed her to continue working in Andrew's lab last summer. She assisted Pamela L. Bradley, now a postdoctoral fellow, in experiments aimed at identifying and studying a mutated gene that prevented normal development of the fly embryo. "We found that a gene mutation led to the production of a protein that's shorter than it should be, so it couldn't function properly," Comeaux said. "That's why the salivary gland, and more importantly the fly itself, didn't develop properly."

The research also yielded new insights into how a developing salivary gland moves into its proper location within a fly embryo. Comeaux will likely be listed as one of the authors on a future scientific journal article based on these findings, her lab director said. "The work Christy carried out contributed significantly to our understanding of how cells within organs use surrounding tissues to position themselves," Andrew said.

While completing her junior-year courses and playing flute in the Hopkins Symphony Orchestra, Comeaux has continued to work about 20 hours a week in Andrew's lab. Next fall, she plans to apply to rigorous M.D.-Ph.D. programs. Based on the rewarding experience in Andrew's lab, she hopes to focus on genetic research. "I never expected to be running to a research lab almost every day as an undergraduate," Comeaux said. "But it's become a major part of my education here, and it's an experience that students at other institutions may not have an opportunity to pursue."

Christy Comeaux inspect a bottle in which fruit flies selected for their genetic mutations are encouraged to mate.
Photo by Will Kirk

She's even learn how to peacefully co-exist with the bugs that inhabit her lab. "They smell bad," Comeaux said. "But once you get used to that, you're home free."

As one of 42 Johns Hopkins students who received Provost's Undergraduate Research Awards in the 2001-2002 academic year, Comeaux will present an overview on her project during an upcoming awards ceremony. It will run from 3 p.m. to 6 p.m. on Thursday, March 7, in the Glass Pavilion on the Homewood campus, 3400 N. Charles St., in Baltimore.

Color images of Comeaux and her mentors available; Contact Phil Sneiderman

The Johns Hopkins University is recognized as the country's first graduate research university, and has been in recent years the leader among the nation's research universities in winning federal research and development grants. The opportunity to be involved in important research is one of the distinguishing characteristics of an undergraduate education at Johns Hopkins.

The Provost's Undergraduate Research Awards program provides one of these research opportunities, open to students in each of the university's four schools with full-time undergraduates: the Krieger School of Arts and Sciences, the Whiting School of Engineering, the Peabody Conservatory and the School of Nursing. Since 1993, about 40 students each year have been awarded up to $2,500 to propose and conduct original research, some results of which have been published in professional journals. The awards, begun by then provost Joseph Cooper and funded through a donation from the Hodson Trust, are an important part of the university's commitment to research.

Return to Provost's Undergraduate Research Awards news release.

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