Researcher Who Made the Fly Fly Again in Genetics Criticizes NIH Narrowing of Model Organism Support

“The NIH’s broad and species-diverse program of basic research during the last 60 years generated a revolution in our understanding of biology and medicine,” writes Allan C. Spradling, professor at the Carnegie Institution for Science in Baltimore and a Howard Hughes Medical Institute investigator, in a PNAS opinion article published July 26.1 “Given this record, why is the NIH now narrowing its vision for basic research to favor subject matter preselected in-house and emphasizing primarily mammalian models?”

Spradling believes that the “why” driving this narrowing is the misperception by the National Institutes of Health (NIH) leadership that in the postgenomic world, the NIH should favor mammalian research, funding only studies that are tightly focused on human medical conditions. Yet Spradling points out that a broad research focus was actually recommended by NIH’s advisory committee and was supported by Congress. Despite these recommendations, NIH study sections and the NIH administration now seem to regard research with a basic focus as “irrelevant” and have excluded it from initiatives, says Spradling, citing the 4D-Nucleome project.

Spradling’s own career illustrates the unexpected benefits that can flow from seemingly arcane work on nonhuman organisms. Working with ASCB member Gerry Rubin in the early 1980s, Spradling perfected a breakthrough gene-editing system in Drosophila, using “P-elements” to insert new genetic material in transposons. Cumbersome by modern standards, the P-element technique was, in its time, a revolutionary tool. It revitalized fly genetics by giving researchers a practical way for the first time to genetically engineer the germline of a multicellular animal. That allowed fly geneticists to begin to explore structure–function questions in flies, work that suggested the scientific bonanza that could follow the sequencing of an entire genome. That, in turn, led to the Drosophila Genome Project, which became the proving ground for Craig Venter’s controversial “shotgun” sequencing technique, which proved to be an essential tool for the Human Genome Project.

In his PNAS opinion piece, Spradling calls on the scientific community to continue to make the case for basic research to the public and to Congress. “[S]tudies with a broad range of models advance our understanding of conserved biological mechanisms and cannot be replaced by increasing the number of narrowly focused studies,” warns Spradling.

1Spradling AC (2016). NIH must support broadly focused basic research. PNAS 113, 8340–8342.

About the Author:

Christina Szalinski is a science writer with a PhD in Cell Biology from the University of Pittsburgh.

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