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SCOTT
WADDELL

When random gene jumps shape personality

LILIANE BETTENCOURT PRIZE FOR LIFE SCIENCES - 2014

In Oxford, Scott Waddell turns upside down the way we understand the uniqueness of each brain.. His research on the fruit fly shed new light on the mechanisms of memory, all the way down to the single neuron. His work could reveal what makes singular the behaviour of each individual.

Scott Waddell knows how to implant a fake memory into a fruit fly's brain. As he directly manipulates small groups of neurons he knows just as well how to make them hungry. At Oxford University, he tweaks those fly behaviours in order to access the nuts and bolts of memory.

This approach has brought about an unexpected discovery, which could, amongst many other things, explain the differences in personalities between identical twins. Scott Waddell especially inspected the insect-specific brain structure dedicated to memory called the mushroom bodies. There, he found out that each member of the neuron group α/β presents a distinct genetic makeup. Transposable genetic elements are responsible for this quirk. These small DNA sequences jump from one cell to another and randomly insert themselves into the genomes of the mushroom bodies neurons. Such jumping genes could be held accountable for the slight differences in the responses of the flies to their environment.

The Bettencourt Schueller Foundation rewards Scott Waddell for his discoveries and endows him with a prize that will help his team caracterize gene transpositions at the scale of the single neuron. The scope of this work reaches far beyond basic research and could bring important medical applications. In human beings, schizophrenia, addiction and age-related dementia have been correlated with abnormal rates of gene transpositions in brain regions that are analogous to those studied by Scott Waddell in fruit flies.

Scott Waddell

Scott Waddell started his scientific career as a PhD student in cancerology. Thisfield didn't quite suit him and he found his career path as he came across Chip Quinn's pionneering articles about the impact of single genes on learning and memory. In 1996, Scott Waddell joined the very same Chip Quinn's laboratory at MIT (Massachusetts Institute of Technology ). His postdoctoral research there led him to discover two large neurons that together orchestrate memory consolidation in fruit flies. To reach these conclusions, Scott Waddell had to develop techniques to manipulate the activity of single neurons. These techniques were later used by the researcher to reveal the workings of the mushroom bodies, a brain structure critical for memory in insects. Scott Waddell's own team at Oxford University is now shifting the way we understand memory and learning. Their research could lay bare the cellular origins of intelligence throughout the entire animal kingdom.


http://www.dpag.ox.ac.uk/team/group-leaders/scott-waddell


scott.waddell@cncb.ox.ac.uk

  • 1996PhD in Molecular Biology, University of London, United Kingdom
  • 1996-2001Post-doctoral position, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Cambridge, USA
  • 2001-2011Assistant, then Associate, Professor, Principal Investigator, Department of Neurobiology, University of Massachussetts Medical School, Worcester, USA
  • 2010Wellcome Trust Senior Research Fellowship in Basic Biomedical Sciences
  • Since 2011Professor of Neurobiology and Principal Investigator, University of Oxford, United Kingdom
  • Since 2012Co-Director and Vice Director, Oxford Martin School Programme on Mind and Machine and Centre for Neural Circuits & Behaviour, Oxford, United Kingdom
  • Since 2014Senior Research Fellow, Pembroke College, University of Oxford, United Kingdom
  • 2014 Elected Member of the European Molecular Biology Organization (EMBO)
  • 2014Liliane Bettencourt Prize for Life Sciences