Investigators in the laboratory of Jon Pierce study the genetic mechanisms that govern behaviors and contribute to neurological disorders. We approach this complex subject by studying how conserved genes contribute to behaviors in the simple but powerful model nematode C. elegans.

Research Projects

Can we stop neurodegeneration in Alzheimer’s disease?

We have engineered C. elegans to mimic the key features of neurodegeneration observed in human Alzheimer’s disease (AD). With this new model, we can easily test whether novel drugs can prevent or reverse the degeneration of neurons by simply counting them through their transparent body. While mouse studies of AD typically take two years, the compact lifespan of C. elegans affords studies as short as 1 week. We are using our powerful new model of AD to understand why neurons die in people with AD, and to search for drugs that protect against this neuron death with unprecedented speed.

Which genes cause problems in Down syndrome?

People with Down syndrome inherit an extra copy of the 21st chromosome which carries about 225 genes. It remains unknown which of these genes contribute to the difficulties in learning, memory and fine motor control in Down syndrome. We are using powerful genetic techniques specific to the research model C. elegans to systematically study each one of these genes. Through our research we aim to identify the few key genes that contribute to dysfunction of the nervous system.

How does alcohol affect our nervous system?

The mechanisms by which alcohol causes intoxication and addiction remain unclear at the molecular level. By using C. elegans as a minimal system, we can rapidly identify which uncharacterized and novel molecules are responsible for behavioral responses to alcohol.

How does our nervous system switch between different patterns of movement?

We take for granted that we can switch seamlessly between walking and running gaits, and rapidly shift between different movements. For people with Parkinson’s disease, however, shifting between gaits and simply getting out of a chair become arduous tasks. We have recently found that the fundamental genetic mechanisms for switching between gaits can be studied in C. elegans.