Sam Kunes

Sam Kunes

Professor of Molecular and Cellular Biology
Sam Kunes

Biological Laboratories, Room 2011
Phone: 617-496-3806

Research Overview

The development and functional experience of a nervous system are keys to understanding an animal’s future behavior. My laboratory conducts research in a number of areas within this broad topic, mostly using Drosophila melanogaster as the system of choice. Drosophila offers a unique opportunity to conduct investigations at the interface of development and behavior, to examine how behavior is defined by the nervous system's synaptic circuitry and modulated by its functional plasticity. It offers the opportunity to examine the relationship between genetic control and behavior, and the potential to approach this relationship in an evolutionary context, aided by the genomic characterization of several Drosophila species. Fruit flies have a relatively simple brain, and yet display complex behaviors, including social interactions and experience-dependent plasticity, behaviors that we associate with sophisticated animals like ourselves. With its repertoire of powerful genetic and molecular tools, behavioral research in Drosophila will be an area with many advances and considerable excitement in the coming years.


            The laboratory's research includes several advanced projects that lie within the confines outlined above. We study how the developmental signaling protein, Hedgehog, is transported along axons of the developing visual system, a means by which the retina controls the number of 1st order target neurons in the brain. We study the converse problem of how neurons in the brain inform the photoreceptor neurons, via their synaptic connections, of which light-sensitive Rhodopsin to express, in order to properly tune their spectral sensitivity. With respect to function and plasticity, one investigation in the lab asks how visual experience is remembered as flies make directional choices in a walking maze. A related project uncovered a neural circuit connecting attraction towards light to directional choice in walking behavior. Another study looks at how a protein involved in synaptic plasticity is synthesized locally, at a synapse, in response to experiential inputs that produce a stable memory. Further work in this area has recently uncovered a microRNA-based mechanism for regulating synaptic structural change during memory consolidation. A long-term goal of our research program is to identify genetic variations that underlie the behavioral diversity of species, and relate these to the development and function of the nervous system.