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Tzumin Lee earned his PhD at Johns Hopkins Medical School where he acquired the power of Drosophila genetics from Dr. Denise Montell. He then chose to study the development of the nervous system, using the fruit fly as a model. “When I started to devote myself to the nervous system, the power of fly genetics had not been well extended to the nervous system. The tools that people had were not sophisticated, and they were used to study other tissues of the fly,” he says.
Lee and Liqun Luo, now an HHMI investigator, set out to develop a way to label individual neurons in living fruit flies. The technique, called mosaic analysis with a repressible cell marker, or MARCM, is used to discover the functions of genes, as well as trace the lineages of neurons and the paths of neural impulses. Lee and colleagues used MARCM to discover a master development gene called chinmo. This gene appears to be responsible for telling neuron progenitor cells what types of neurons to be made at particular times of development. Lee has taken MARCM further, creating twin-spot MARCM and dual-expression-control MARCM. These refinements make it easier to identify individual neurons and their origins.
At Janelia, Lee aims to reconstruct the development of the fruit fly brain at both cellular and molecular levels and extend similar analyses to higher brains. “With the right tools, I want to resolve how the genome encodes an entire brain from fly to mammals,” Lee says. “Without a place like Janelia, that would be only a dream to me. Janelia is a wonderful place to do this through teamwork.”