Biologists identify genes regulating sleeping and feeding

June 10, 2010

In the quest to better understand how the brain chooses between competing behaviors necessary for survival, scientists at the University of Massachusetts Medical School and New York University have isolated two genes in the fruit fly Drosophila that work together to mediate the need to sleep and the need to eat. The study, which appears in the online version of Current Biology, offers insights that may be used to understand sleep-and metabolism-related disorders in humans.

"This work determines part of the neural mechanism that mediates a conflict in a hungry fly's brain in deciding whether to seek food or ," said Scott Waddell, PhD, associate professor of neurobiology. "It provides a foundation for understanding how the neural control of these two homeostatic behaviors is integrated in the brain."

Previous research has shown that neural systems controlling sleep and feeding in mammals are interconnected: promotes feeding, whereas starvation suppresses sleep, but little was known about the genes responsible for this interaction. Because the genes that make up Drosophila's have counterparts with similar functions in mammals, such as those controlling regulation of sleep and metabolism, the study of fruit fly genes can have implications for humans.

After initially screening around 2,000 genes, the researchers identified more than a dozen involved in the interaction between feeding and sleep. From this smaller group, they focused on the Clock and cycle genes, which play a role in both the fruit fly and mammalian circadian, or biological, clock.

To determine the impact of these two genes on the relationship between sleeping and feeding, the researchers examined with and without the Clock and cycle genes under food deprivation conditions—the flies were given only a liquid gel containing no nutrients over a 24-hour period and the researchers monitored the flies' movement to determine resulting sleep behavior.

Their results showed a three-to-four-fold reduction in sleep in starved flies missing the Clock and cycle genes compared to flies possessing these . The findings therefore suggest that both Clock and cycle help the flies to regulate sleep when they are food deprived.

"This is a significant advance in how we approach behavioral genetics," said Alex Keene, PhD, a post-doctoral researcher in NYU's department of biology and the study's lead author. "We know that the brain is wired to engage in more than one behavior at a time, but less clear is how the brain chooses between these behaviors. These findings are transformative because they show that a gene can control sleep in a context-specific fashion. In the future, we will need to study animals in different environmental conditions in order to fully understand how the brain controls behavior. "

Explore further: Mammals, fruit flies: same biological clock

Related Stories

Searching for shut eye: Study identifies possible sleep gene

July 29, 2008

While scientists and physicians know what happens if you don't get six to eight hours of shut-eye a night, investigators have long been puzzled about what controls the actual need for sleep. Researchers at the University ...

New research sheds light on fly sleep circuit

November 26, 2008

In a novel study appearing this week in Neuron, Brandeis researchers identify for the first time a specific set of wake-promoting neurons in fruit flies that are analogous to cells in the much more complex sleep circuit in ...

Recommended for you

Huddling rats behave as a 'super-organism'

September 3, 2015

Rodents huddle together when it is cold, they separate when it is warm, and at moderate temperatures they cycle between the warm center and the cold edges of the group. In a new study published in PLOS Computational Biology, ...

Fighting explosives pollution with plants

September 3, 2015

Biologists at the University of York have taken an important step in making it possible to clean millions of hectares of land contaminated by explosives.

0 comments

Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.