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Neuroscientist Cori Bargmann to join Rockefeller
UCSF researcher discovered ‘matchmaker’ molecule responsible for linking nerve cells
BY ZACH VEILLEUX and CATHY YARBROUGH
Like any matchmaking service, your body’s nervous system is only as good as the connections it makes.
Consider the dating scene. Every weekend, people congregate in bars with hopes that the right mate will simply appear. Others stake their faith on internet ads or reality TV.
None of these is reliable enough for the billions of lonely nerve cells in your body. Every thought and movement you make depends on their successfully finding the right mate. When that doesn’t happen — when the wrong connections are made — it’s the biological equivalent of “Fatal Attraction.”
“When two nerve cells don’t make the right connection, they make a bunch of wrong connections. They hook up with all kinds of wrong partners,” says Cornelia Bargmann, one of the country’s most respected neuroscientists. It’s one of the things that goes wrong in brain diseases such as epilepsy.
Bargmann, who discovered a “matchmaker” molecule responsible for making the correct connections between nervous system cells called neurons, soon will make a new match of her own. This fall, the University of California, San Francisco scientist will join Rockefeller University to head one of its over 70 independent laboratories, where she will continue her landmark research to identify and study the genes that shape the assembly and function of the nervous system. About 14 members of her lab are also making the transcontinental move.
Born in Virginia and raised in Athens, Georgia, Bargmann received her undergraduate degree in biochemistry in 1981 from the University of Georgia. She was awarded a Ph.D. from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in 1987, studying in the laboratory of Robert Weinberg. Then, after completing postdoctoral training in the MIT lab of Robert Horvitz (winner of the 2002 Nobel Prize for Medicine or Physiology), she joined the faculty of the University of California, San Francisco, in 1991. She was promoted to professor in 1998 and became a Howard Hughes Medical Institute investigator in 1995.
 Identifying the specific neurons and mechanisms responsible for relatively complex behaviors is the primary aim of Bargmann’s research. “The brain is what makes us human — it’s the source of our thoughts, perceptions, memories and desires,” says Bargmann. “What could be more interesting than learning how the brain works?”
Bargmann conducts her research on the transparent, one-millimeter-long worm C. elegans. “I study the brain of a worm instead of the brain of a human for the same reason that you would study a Volkswagen Beetle before you investigate a Boeing 777,” says Bargmann. There are only 302 neurons in the worm’s entire nervous system; mammals have billions.
And, strange as it sounds, humans and worms engage in many of the same basic survival behaviors. Like us, they use sensory input to perceive and remember their environment as they forage for food and avoid predators. “Insights that scientists learn from the worm allow us to target our questions to understanding the human brain in a much more precise and intelligent way,” Bargmann explains.
Because worms are both deaf and blind, Bargmann focuses on their keen sense of smell. Worms can differentiate between thousands of different compounds based on their odor and can even distinguish between two different scents to which they are exposed simultaneously.“We’re trying to understand the logic that allows the worm to ignore a pervasive odor and pay attention to one that is coming from a specific source, which might be informative or might predict food,” Bargmann says.
By studying mutant worms that can detect odors but can’t tell them apart, Bargmann was able to pinpoint a gene responsible for odor discrimination — and went on discover that some odors are sensed by two different neurons that have very subtle differences. “Being a little different, these neurons can compare themselves to each other and sense overlapping, but not identical, odors,” Bargmann says.
In other studies, Bargmann has identified a protein that helps control water balance and underlies the sensation of touch (research that was conducted in collaboration with Rockefeller’s Jeffrey Friedman), pinpointed a gene called npr-1 that underlies worms’ tendency to feed in social groups rather than alone, and located guidepost molecules that direct neurons to form connections with each other during early development.
Bargmann is currently professor in the departments of anatomy and of biochemistry and biophysics at the University of California, San Francisco. She is also a member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences and the National Academy of Sciences.
“Cori Bargmann typifies the Rockefeller scientist,” says Rockefeller University President Paul Nurse. “She is bold and highly original in her thinking and her approach to studying the brain and other components of the nervous system.”


January 30, 2004



 

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