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Jegla Lab Emphasizes Evolution In Study Of The Nervous System

Dr. Timothy Jegla has been interested in evolution and neuroscience ever since his undergraduate days back at Carleton College in Minnesota.

In fact, Jegla wrote a term paper in an evolution class during his senior year on the same topic that he studies today in his Penn State research laboratory — the evolution of the nervous system.

Before he came to Penn State to return to academia, Jegla spent eight years in the pharmaceutical industry because of his expertise in ion channels. Ion channels are proteins that let charged particles pass through the cell membrane, which allow neurons (brain cells) to function. His knowledge was valued in the pharmaceutical industry since those channels are important drug targets for cardiovascular and nervous system diseases.

Jegla, however, did not believe the pharmaceutical companies asked enough of the “why” or “how” questions. His desire to answer those fundamental biological questions led him to Penn State.

“What I saw the industry is good at, is taking an idea honed by academic science and putting it into practice,” he said. “They weren’t good at finding out how these genes make our cells function the way they do. You have to understand how a process works, in order to effectively target it. I decided to go back to academics to work more on that, and eventually found my way here to Penn State — to an academic position back working on the evolution of the nervous system, figuring out what are key elements in how nerve cells are built and how they function.”

Senior Laura Glatzer knew she was interested in neuroscience when she came to Penn State. Although she didn’t immediately join a research lab in her freshman year, she continued to search for the right fit. She decided to join the Jegla laboratory in her second semester of college.

“I was looking at a whole bunch of different labs related to neuroscience,” Glatzer said. “I really liked that Dr. Jegla was tying in the evolutionary aspect of it by looking at how nerve cells in sea anemones and humans are similar or different, and how this shows the way nerve cells evolved. I thought it would be a cool mix of evolution, which I really find interesting, and genetics, and also neuroscience too. I also thought that Dr. Jegla would be somebody who would encourage me to push myself, and give me a chance to do some independent projects.”

Glatzer explained the focus of the Jegla lab is to use different model organisms’ nervous systems as comparisons to that of humans, in order to determine which parts of nerve cells are essential for them to work properly.

“Our lab’s main goal is to look at the nervous system and figure out which parts of human nerve cells are ancestral,” she said. “This will help us understand what parts of nerve cells are fundamental to their function and identity. To do this, we look at ion channels in sea anemones compared to mammals to see when various aspects of signaling in nerve cells evolved.”

Aditya Pisupati is an M.D./Ph.D. candidate from Penn State Hershey who just finished his research project within the Jegla lab this summer. Also a 2012 Penn State graduate, Pisupati studied the evolution of how ion channels are assembled within the nervous system in his recent research.

“Within the Jegla lab we look at problems through more of a evolutionary perspective compared to other labs in the ion channel community,” Pisupati said. “We’re trying to investigate more from a broader perspective, particularly how do channels work now and what is the picture of what they looked back then.”

With many questions about how ion channels evolved having now been answered, the lab has other interests as well. For example, the Jegla lab works closely with Penn State’s Rolls lab, which is headed by Dr. Melissa Rolls.

Jessica Eason is a third-year Ph.D. student whose project connects the two labs. Eason joined both of the labs at the same time so that she could work on the joint project. She majored in marine biology in college and earned a Masters in neuroscience, so the two laboratories offered her a healthy combination of both familiarity and challenge.

“I joined both labs at the same time because I want to know more about cell biology and how to answer the neurobiological questions from a very cellular perspective, which is what the Rolls’ lab does. And then the Jegla lab animals are more comfortable for my scientific background in marine biology and aquatic organisms,” Eason said.

Eason is working on a piece of a bigger project that is a major focus of his lab right now. The project involves examining the evolutionary origins of polar signaling in neurons. In simplest terms, humans have very complex neurons (brain cells). Signals specifically enter through one end of the neuron (the dendrites) and leave through another end (the axon).

Humans need this “directional signaling,” but it isn’t clear whether it is needed in the animals that the Jegla and Rolls labs work with — sea anemones, a type of cnidarians. Cnidarians split off from the human evolutionary path before the complex nervous systems that are seen in humans had developed.

Cnidarians’ nervous systems are called nerve nets, and although they may not need directional signaling like humans do, Eason is part of a team trying to figure out if there are similar, but separate, axon and dendrite-like processes in the neurons of the sea anemones that allow their nervous systems to also continue to work.

Eason believes the collaboration between the two laboratories is what really allows this research project to work well.

“Taking [Jegla’s] background in evolutionary biology and genetics and knowing the history of these animals and what they’re capable of and how we can use them as a model system, and then taking the expertise in cell biology, neurobiology, and microscopy [from the Rolls’ lab] and bringing them together connects the two in this project,” Eason said.

What Jegla likes about doing research in the Penn State community is the blend of graduate and undergraduate students in his lab.

“Students at different stages each bring something unique to the table,” Jegla said. “It creates a nice mix of skills and energy.”

Jegla especially enjoys teaching his undergraduate students at Penn State about the importance of evolution through the research that his laboratory specializes in.

“It’s the story of how we got here, and this happens to be the part of it I’m most interested in,” Jegla said. “That’s the greatest story of all time.”

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About the Author

Navin Zachariah

Navin is just your average Dallas Cowboys fan from "right outside of Philly." A biology major, Navin hopes to one day cure the Cowboys of Jason Garrett. He is one of the select few who actually like The Chainsmokers. And if you see someone who looks exactly like him around campus, it could actually be his identical twin brother. Navin always trusts the process. Feel free to contact him at [email protected] or follow him on Twitter @nzach3.

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