Publication Date


Document Type

Doctoral Dissertation

Academic Program



Department of Neurobiology; Waddell Lab

First Thesis Advisor

Scott Waddell Ph.D.


Drosophila, neurons, Mushroom Bodies, Drosophila Proteins


In the Drosophila brain, memories are processed and stored in two mirrorsymmetrical structures composed of approximately 5,000 neurons called Mushroom Bodies (MB). Depending on their axonal extensions, neurons in the MB can be further classified into three different subgroups: αβ, α’β’ and γ. In addition to the morphological differences between these groups of neurons, there is evidence of functional differences too. For example, it has been previously shown that while neurotransmission from α’β’ neurons is required for consolidation of olfactory memory, output from αβ neurons is required for its later retrieval. To gain insight into the functional properties of these discrete neurons we analyzed whether they were different at the level of gene expression. We generated an intersectional genetic approach to exclusively label each population of neurons and permit their purification. Comparing expression profiles, revealed a large number of potentially interesting molecular differences between the populations. We focused on the finding that the MB αβ neurons, which are the presumed storage site for transcription-dependent long-term memory, express high levels of mRNA for transposable elements and histones suggesting that these neurons likely possess unique genomic characteristics.

For decades, transposable elements (TE) were considered to be merely “selfish” DNA elements inserted at random in the genome and that they their sole function was to self-replicate. However, new studies have started to arise that indicate TE contribute more than just “junk” DNA to the genome. Although it is widely believed that mobilization of TE destabilize the genome by insertional mutagenesis, deletions and rearrangements of genes, some rearrangements might be advantageous for the organism. TE mobilization has recently been documented to occur in some somatic cells, including in neuronal precursor cells (NPCs). Moreover, mobilization in NPCs seems to favor insertions within neuronal expressed genes and in one case the insertion elevated the expression. During the last decade, the discovery of the small RNA pathways that suppress the expression and mobilization of TE throughout the animal have helped to uncover new functions that TE play. In this work, we demonstrate that proteins of the PIWI-associated RNA pathway that control TE expression in the germline are also required to suppress TE expression in the adult fly brain. Moreover, we find that they are differentially expressed in subsets of MB neurons, being under represented in the αβ neurons. This finding suggests that the αβ neurons tolerate TE mobilization. Lastly, we demonstrate by sequencing αβ neuron DNA that TE are mobile and we identify >200 de novo insertions into neurally expressed genes. We conclude that this TE generated mosaicism, likely contributes a new level of neuronal diversity making, in theory, each αβ neuron genetically different. In principle the stochastic nature of this process could also render every fly an individual.



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