Yale Professor Awarded Prestigious McKnight Award

Yale Professor John Carlson is one of five recipients of this year’s McKnight Investigator Award, which is granted by The McKnight Endowment Fund for Neuroscience to gifted, mid-career scientists.

Carlson, a professor in the Department of Molecular, Cellular and Developmental Biology, will receive $50,000 for each of three years.

“I was delighted to learn of this,” he said. “It will be helpful in allowing us to pursue some new directions.”

The focus of Carlson’s research is the olfactory response of fruit flies. In a study published in the February issue of the journal Neuron, he and his team reported that they had found the first insect odor receptor genes, which affect how fruit flies respond to food sources such as apples and bananas.

The identification of the odor receptor genes, researchers say, could be applied to other insects, including mosquitoes that carry potentially deadly diseases. What makes a mosquito bite a person rather than an animal is largely an olfactory response.

“Now we can use the genetics of fruit flies to ask questions about how individual olfactory receptor neurons choose which receptors to express,” said Carlson, who last year was awarded the Yale College Dylan Hixon Prize for Excellence in Teaching in the Natural Sciences. Only one such award is made to a faculty member each year.

He said the fruit fly is valuable in his line of research because it has a relatively simple olfactory system. Fruit flies have about 1,000 olfactory receptor neurons. Humans have about 100 million.

“The second reason they are useful to study is that they have very powerful genetics, so you can isolate mutants, which are detected in olfaction,” he said. “It’s very easy to measure olfactory function in live animals either behaviorally or physiologically.”

Carlson said the choice of olfactory receptor genes by individual neurons helps to generate cellular identity, which is important in neurobiology as well as in systems other than the nervous system. “All cells have to acquire specific characteristics and sometimes the process goes awry, leading to disease,” he said.

Carlson received his undergraduate degree from Harvard College and a Ph.D. from Stanford University. He has been on the Yale faculty since 1986.

This year’s awards are the final round of McKnight Investigator Awards, which began in 1982. Over the past 18 years, 89 investigators have been supported through the program, providing $10.5 million for neuroscience research. The endowment fund will announce a new Memory and Brain Disorders Award early next spring.

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