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Videos of flies (5x speed) using FlyWalker, a program that enables scientists to label and track the position of each of the fly’s footfalls, thereby building a high-resolution picture of it’s walking gait. Top: normal fly walking at around 25 mm/s. Bottom: fly with its VNC serotonin neurons stimulated, which slows its speed to 15 mm/s (Credit: Clare Howard/Mann lab/Columbia's Zuckerman Institute)

A Columbia University study in fruit flies has identified serotonin as a chemical that triggers the body’s startle response, the automatic deer-in-the-headlights reflex that freezes the body momentarily in response to a potential threat. Today’s study reveals that when a fly experiences an unexpected change to its surroundings, such as a sudden vibration, release of serotonin helps to literally — and temporarily — stop the fly in its tracks.

These findings, recently published in Current Biology , offer broad insight into the biology of the startle response, a ubiquitous, yet mysterious, phenomenon that has been observed in virtually every animal studied to date, from flies to fish to people.

“Imagine sitting in your living room with your family and — all of a sudden — the lights go out, or the ground begins to shake,” said Richard Mann , PhD, a principal investigator at Columbia’s Mortimer B. Zuckerman Mind Brain Behavior Institute and the paper’s senior author. “Your response, and that of your family, will be the same: You will stop, freeze and then move to safety. With this study, we show in flies that a rapid release of the chemical serotonin in their nervous system drives that initial freeze. And because serotonin also exists in people, these findings shed light on what may be going on when we get startled as well.”

In the brain, serotonin is most closely associated with regulating mood and emotion. But previous research on flies and vertebrates has shown it can also affect the speed of an animal’s movement. The Columbia researchers’ initial goal was to more fully understand how the chemical accomplished this.

Congenital diaphragmatic hernia (CDH) is a severe birth defect. For babies born with CDH, their diaphragms are not developed properly, with some or all parts of the abdominal organs pushed into the chest. The displacement of these critical organs can have a significant impact on how the lungs develop and grow. 

Dr. Yufeng Shen
Yufeng Shen, PhD, associate professor of systems biology

A recent study , led by Yufeng Shen , PhD, and Wendy Chung , MD, PhD, and their labs at Columbia University Irving Medical Center , investigated the genetic risk factors linked to CDH and analyzed data from whole genome sequencing and exome sequencing to determine novel mutations. The study also uncovered the link between CDH and additional developmental disorders. 

“Many babies with this birth defect also have lung hypoplasia or pulmonary hypertension and babies have difficulty breathing. Even with advanced care available, the mortality rate is still about 20 percent,” says Dr. Shen, associate professor of systems biology at Columbia, with a joint appointment in the Department of Biomedical Informatics

“One hypothesis is that the lung condition is not necessarily caused by the physical compression on the developing lungs in the chest,” explains Dr. Shen, “it can be caused by the same genetic defect that causes CDH. Finding those genes is absolutely necessary to improve care and develop effective treatment in the long run.”   

Scientists have been aiming to identify new risk genes in CDH—and other developmental disorders—with  the hope that with improved genetic diagnosis more tailored or long-term care for patients born with this defect could be provided, as well as potential targets for intervention down the road. 

Nicholas Tatonetti, PhD
Nicholas Tatonetti, Phd

Nicholas Tatonetti , PhD, solves problems. He has always enjoyed it, and as the informatics community has discovered, he is both creative and proficient in his methods.

Dr. Tatonetti, who was recently awarded tenure and promoted to the rank of Associate Professor in the Columbia Department of Biomedical Informatics (DBMI) and Department of Systems Biology , focuses on the use of advanced data science methods, including artificial intelligence and machine learning, to investigate medicine safety. Using emerging resources, such as electronic health records (EHR) and genomics databases, his lab is working to identify for whom these drugs will be safe and effective and for whom they will not.

His path to Columbia wasn’t a traditional one, but that fits his work. Since joining in 2012, Dr. Tatonetti has used non-traditional thinking to benefit both health and healthcare.

Utilizing both data mining of medical records and prospective lab experiments, Dr. Tatonetti created a methodology for both finding and validating adverse drug reactions and drug-drug interactions. During a two-year collaboration with Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Sam Roe of the Chicago Tribune , Dr. Tatonetti discovered that the drugs ceftriaxone and lansoprazole, when taken together, induces an arrhythmia in the heart.

The data mining identified adverse effects, while the lab experiments established causality. Dr. Tatonetti wasn’t specifically looking for a negative reaction of those particular drugs; he had no reason to suspect them.

“We are able to find things that nobody expects to happen because the world of hypotheses we consider is basically everything,” he said. “We consider every possible combination, a type of analysis that would be impossible without a huge data set and significant computational power.”

As a member of Columbia University’s Program for Mathematical Genomics (PMG) , Tal Korem, PhD, is bringing his interests in systems biology, quantitative research, and the human microbiome to areas of clinical relevance. For Dr. Korem, that clinical focus is women’s reproductive health. 

“There is still a lot we don’t understand that relates to women’s health, to fertility, and to birth outcomes, and how microbes play a role in all of this,” says Dr. Korem, assistant professor of systems biology, with a joint appointment in obstetrics and gynecology at Columbia University Vagelos College of Physicians and Surgeons. A current focus of the Korem lab is preterm birth, i.e., birth that occurs prior to 37 weeks of gestation, though Dr. Korem intends to expand into other areas such as infertility and endometriosis. 

Tal Korem, PhD
Tal Korem, PhD

Dr. Korem’s interest in  women’s health research is personal, stemming from several impactful experiences that hit close to home. 

“My aunt passed away from ovarian cancer and I have seen friends and family members struggle with idiopathic infertility,” he says. “Also, witnessing the complications with the birth of my first child, which involved emergency procedures, motivated my interest in this area, and I am very excited about the potential to contribute to women’s health with my own research.” 

Dr. Korem, a native of Tel Aviv, Israel, is the first in his family to earn a PhD, and had entered academia as a medical student. After completing  his undergraduate degree, he enrolled in a MD/PhD graduate program. There, he realized that research was what he enjoyed the most. He is a trained computational biologist, and studied under Professor Eran Segal at the Weizmann Institute of Science, where his work focused on the  human microbiome, a complex system of microbial communities that inhabit every body part. 

A wide range of research topics, from studies related to pediatric cancer and glioblastoma to soil microbial communities and electronic health records analysis—were presented and discussed at this year’s Department of Systems Biology (DSB) retreat. 

DSB Retreat 2019
Eugene Douglass, postdoctoral research scientist in the Andrea Califano lab, was one of the featured presenters at the two-day retreat. For a photo gallery, view the DSB Retreat Photo Album.

Held over two days for the first time, October 3 to 4 in Ellenville, NY, the retreat gave DSB faculty, post-docs, and students a chance to get away from the bustle of New York City, learn about their peers’ research, both from Morningside labs and CUIMC labs, and network. The department this year expanded its annual program over two days, encouraging more peer-to-peer connecting and devoted the spotlight specifically to research by young investigators. 

DSB researchers and graduate students participated in a poster competition held the first evening, and reviewed by Systems Biology faculty judges. At the end of the second day’s program, three Best Poster winners were announced by Andrea Califano, Dr, chair of the department. Poster competition winners this year were: Dafni Glinos , PhD, postdoctoral researcher in the lab of Dr. Tuuli Lappalainen at New York Genome Center/Systems Biology; Alexander Kitaygorodsky , a graduate student in the lab of Dr. Yufeng Shen; and Jordan Metz , an MD/PhD graduate student in the lab of Dr. Peter Sims. The poster winners gave presentations on the final day of the retreat and received a cash prize and an award certificate. 

Winning Research:

Dafni Glinos

Long-Read Sequencing to Study Allelic Effects on Transcriptome Structure