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March 20, 2012

In Research

Wasp wings carry clues to species’ growth

two wasps with differing wing lengthsThe gene regulation that determines the size of wasp wings may offer clues to how species differ in size and shape. The finding could lead to a better understanding of cell growth regulation, as well as the underlying causes of some diseases.

Using the wings of the insects as a tool to study how growth is regulated, researchers have discovered that changes in expression of a well-known cell regulator gene called “unpaired” (upd) accounts for wing growth differences between males of closely related species.

The “unpaired” gene is distantly related to a class of genes called “interleukins’” which affect cell growth and specialization in humans. The discovery illustrates the principle that animals—from insects to humans—often use the same “genetic toolkit,” despite immense differences in their biology. The findings are published in the journal Science.

John (Jack) Werren, professor of biology, and doctoral student David Loehlin isolated the gene causing the wing difference through a technique called positional cloning. The large-winged N. giraulti and small-winged N. vitripennis wasps were crossbred, resulting in hybrid wasps with mixed chromosomes.

Afterwards, the offspring with the largest wings were crossbred with pure N. vitripennis wasps, until, after 10 generations, Werren and Loehlin had pure N. vitripennis wasps, with one exception: The young wasps now had DNA for large wings.
They then used the same method to “break” the isolated genetic material into parts in order to investigate how DNA flanking the gene affected its regulation and growth of the wings.

“The DNA sequence next to the gene controls where in the wing the gene is turned on or off,” says Loehlin, first author of the study. “This is one of the first cases where scientists have found genetic material responsible for naturally occurring growth differences in animals.”

Normal growth regulation is also required for an animal to develop, and inappropriate regulation of growth causes disease, including cancer. Read more at

Social media may be giving you away

Computer scientists at the University have shown that a great deal can be learned about individuals from their interactions in online social media, even when those individuals hide their Twitter messages (tweets) and other posts. The paper, “Finding Your Friends and Following Them to Where You Are,” by professors Henry Kautz, professor and chair of the Department of Computer Science, Jeffrey Bigham, assistant professor of computer science, and graduate student Adam Sadilek, won the Best Paper Award at the Fifth Association for Computing Machinery (ACM) International Conference on Web Search and Data Mining, held in Seattle.

“It’s harder than most people think it is to protect our privacy online, but there are ways to use this new reality for good.”
—Henry Kautz, professor and chair of
computer science.

The researchers were able to determine a person’s location within a 100-meter radius with 85 percent accuracy by using only the location of that person’s friends. They were also able to predict a person’s Twitter friendships with high accuracy, even when that person’s profile was kept private.

“Once you learn about relationships from peoples’ tweets, it makes senses that you can track them,” says Sadilek, the project’s first author. “My fiancée may be a good predictor of my location because we have breakfast together every morning.”

The personal nature of the messages made it a little easier for the researchers to determine relationships. Sadilek explains that heavy Twitter users spend a great deal of time talking about themselves.

“It’s harder than most people think it is to protect our privacy online,” says Kautz, “but there are ways to use this new reality for good.”

The team will now apply their models to such tasks as tracking and predicting the spread of communicable diseases. If people and their friends in one location tweet about having a fever and not feeling well, it may be an indication of a flu outbreak. Read more at

Researchers create new way to study liver cancer

Researchers at the Wilmot Cancer Center have made significant strides in the study of a primary cancer of the liver—intrahepatic cholangiocarcinoma (IHCC), also called biliary tract cancer. Their work has been published online and in print editions of Cancer Research.

Aram Hezel, assistant professor of hematology and oncology at the Medical Center, is the corresponding author of the study that examined the role of genes commonly mutated in human cancers and their role in the growth of IHCC.

Hezel and fellow researchers from the Medical Center and Massachusetts General Hospital and Harvard Medical School succeeded in developing the first genetically engineered mouse model of the disease that they hope will provide a valuable new tool in further research. A mouse model enables researchers to test dozens or even hundreds of potential treatments in mice in a short span of time, accelerating the discovery process.

The disease is diagnosed in approximately 6,000 people each year, and its occurrence is rising at a rate that makes it among the fastest growing liver cancers, for reasons scientists have not yet been able to pinpoint. To date, many aspects of the cancer’s biology and genetic makeup, as well as its cells of origin, have eluded scientists.

The model provides a foundation for further understanding of the earliest, precancerous stages of the cancer, a better understanding of the tumor biology, and for evaluating effective treatments. The group has found that chloroquine—a drug commonly used to treat malaria—has been effective in treating IHCC in the mouse model.


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