Harvard University - Department of Molecular & Cellular Biology


by Naomi Pierce

March 14th, 2011

Cori Bargmann to Give Prather Lectures March 29, 30, 31

by Naomi Pierce

This year's Prather Lectures will be given by Cori Bargmann, a pioneer in the field of learning and memory behavioral genetics who has focused much of her work on the genetics and neurobiology of the worm, Caenorhabditis elegans.

Bargmann did her undergraduate degree in biochemistry at the University of Georgia, and in 1987 completed a Ph.D. at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in the laboratory of Robert Weinberg, where she produced a series of studies on molecular mechanisms of oncogenesis. Her postdoctoral training was with H. Robert Horvitz at MIT, where she first started studying the chemosensory behavior of C. elegans and demonstrated both their ability to smell as well as some of the mechanisms underlying their olfactory behavior.

She continued this research in a faculty position at UCSF, where she made a cascade of breakthroughs on the sensory abilities of worms and factors regulating their social behavior as well as their neuronal development. With members of her laboratory, she identified "matchmaker molecules” that direct neurons to form connections with each other during development. She showed that natural genetic variation in a neuropeptide Y receptor homolog can modify social behavior and food responses in C. elegans. She also explicated the genetic and neurobiological underpinnings of associative learning in these animals.

Current work uses C. elegans to dig deeply into the central problem of neuroscience: how neural circuits underlie behavior. In 2004, Bargmann moved to The Rockefeller University, where she is Torsten N. Wiesel Professor, and associate director of the Shelby White and Leon Levy Center for Mind, Brain and Behavior. She has been a Howard Hughes Medical Investigator since 1995. Professor Bargmann is a member of the National Academy of Sciences and the American Academy of Arts and Sciences. She received the 2009 Richard Lounsbery Award from the National Academy of Sciences, the 2004 Dargut and Milena Kemali International Prize for Research in the Field of Basic and Clinical Neurosciences, and the Charles Judson Herrick Award for comparative neurology in 2000. In 1997, she was awarded the Takasago Award for olfaction research and the W. Alden Spencer Award for neuroscience research.


4:00 – 5:30 PM Tuesday, March 29: Unraveling Relationships between Genes and Behavior

How do genes and the environment interact to generate behaviors? How are innate genetic templates for behavior modified by context and experience? What genetic changes lead to differences in individual behaviors, within and between species? To answer these questions we need to understand the relationships among genes, neurons, and circuits that generate behaviors, and we need to understand how these systems change over evolutionary time. Some of these questions can be addressed in experimental animals, including the animal we study, the nematode worm C. elegans. Studies in worms and other animals suggest that there may be preferred genetic pathways for generating new behavioral variants.

11:00 – 12:00 PM Wednesday, March 30: Fifty Years of Solitude: Genetic Variation in Foraging Behavior

Some behavioral differences between individuals have a genetic component, but relatively little is known about the nature of “behavioral” genes in any species. We have used naturally variable wild-type C. elegans strains to find genes that affect foraging decisions, social behavior, and food choice. The genes seem to fall into two interrelated classes: genes that change sensory thresholds, and genes that change the animal’s sensitivity to internal modulatory states. The genetic architecture of these traits had some unexpected features, and exploiting them may be helpful in studying other complex behavioral traits.

4:00 – 5:30 PM Thursday, March 31: The Invisible Wiring Diagram: Using Fixed Circuits to Generate Flexible Behaviors

Although an anatomical wiring diagram of C. elegans has been known for almost twenty years, we cannot predict the animal’s behavior from its connectivity. We are characterizing the olfactory system to trace the transformation of sensory information into goal-directed behavior. Using high-resolution behavioral analysis and genetic manipulation of the circuits, we have uncovered information that shapes the connectivity map and resulting behaviors: neuromodulators that are not apparent in the anatomical circuits, flexible information flow through alternative synaptic pathways, and neuronal dynamics that shape responses over time.

[posted March 14th, 2011]