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Professor of Molecular and Cellular Biology

Sam Kunes

Professor of Molecular and Cellular Biology


The development and functional history of a nervous system is key to understanding its future role in directing behavior. My laboratory conducts research in a number of areas that fall within the broad confines of this topic, using the fruitfly Drosophila melanogaster as a system of choice. Drosophila offers a unique opportunity to conduct investigations at the interface between development and behavior, to examine how behavior is modulated by the nervous system’s functional plasticity, and to illuminate the relationship between genetic control and the evolutionary divergence of behavior.

Current research in the laboratory includes a study of how a signaling protein, Hedgehog, is transported along axons of the developing visual system, a means by which the retina controls the number of target neurons for retinal axons in the brain. We study the converse problem of how contact between photoreceptor axons and their targets in the brain influences the final stages of photoreceptor neuronal differentiation, including the development of synapses. With respect to the function and plasticity of the adult visual system, one investigation in the lab asks how visual experience is remembered, particularly with regard to the wavelength of light, as flies make directional choices in a walking maze. The aim of this project is to determine where and how such memories are encoded. Another study looks at how a protein involved in synaptic plasticity is synthesized locally in response to environmental inputs that produce a memory. A long-term goal of our work is to identify genetic differences that underlie behavioral changes associated with speciation, and relate these to developmental and functional differences in the nervous system.

Selected Publications

Social isolation modulates appetite and avoidance behavior via a common oxytocinergic circuit in larval zebrafish. Wee CL, Song E, Nikitchenko M, Herrera KJ, Wong S, Engert F, Kunes S. Nat Commun. 2022 May 11;13(1):2573. doi: 10.1038/s41467-022-29765-9.  PMID: 35545618

A bidirectional network for appetite control in larval zebrafish. Wee CL, Song EY, Johnson RE, Ailani D, Randlett O, Kim JY, Nikitchenko M, Bahl A, Yang CT, Ahrens MB, Kawakami K, Engert F, Kunes S. Elife. 2019 Oct 18;8:e43775. doi: 10.7554/eLife.43775. PMID: 31625906

A novel proteolytic event controls Hedgehog intracellular sorting and distribution to receptive fields Daniele JR, Chu T, Kunes S. Biol Open. 2017 May 15;6(5):540-550. doi: 10.1242/bio.024083.PMID: 28298318

Determinants of the Drosophila odorant receptor pattern. Song E, de Bivort B, Dan C, Kunes S. Dev Cell. 2012 Feb 14;22(2):363-76. doi: 10.1016/j.devcel.2011.12.015.PMID: 22340498

Chu T, Chiu M, Zhang E, Kunes S. (2006) A C-terminal motif targets hedgehog to axons, coordinating assembly of the Drosophila eye and brain. Dev Cell 10:635-646.

Ashraf SI, McLoon AL, Sclarsic SM, Kunes S. (2006) Synaptic protein synthesis associated with memory is regulated by the RISC pathway in Drosophila. Cell. 124:191-205.

Yang, H and S. Kunes. (2004) Non-vesicular Release of Acetylcholine Is Required for Axon Targeting in the Drosophila Visual System. PNAS. 101:15213-8.

Dearborn, R., and S. Kunes. (2004) An axon scaffold induced by retinal axons directs glia to destinations in the Drosophila optic lobe. Development. 131:2291-303.

Dearborn, R., Q. He, Y. Dai and S. Kunes. (2002) Eph receptor tyrosine kinase-mediated formation of a topographic map in the development of the Drosophila visual system. J. Neuroscience 22:1338-49.

Song Y, Chung S, and S. Kunes. (2000) Combgap relays wingless signal reception to the determination of cortical cell fate in the Drosophila visual system. Mol Cell 6:1143-54.

Huang, Z., B.-Z. Shilo and S. Kunes. (1998) A retinal axon fascicle uses Spitz, an EGF receptor ligand, to construct a synaptic cartridge in the brain of Drosophila. Cell 95:693-703.

Huang, Z., and S. Kunes. (1996) Hedgehog, transmitted along retinal axons, triggers neurogenesis in the developing visual centers of the Drosophila brain. Cell 86: 411-22.

Kaphingst, K., and S. Kunes. (1994) Pattern formation in the visual centers of the Drosophila brain: wingless acts via decapentaplegic to specify the dorsoventral axis. Cell 78:437-48.