Clemson research looks to butterflies for human genetic research advances

08/07/2014 12:00 AM

08/06/2014 7:01 PM

Could a simple backyard butterfly help provide the key to curing genetic diseases in humans?

Clemson scientists believe the way the delicate insects feed may one day lead to the development of a device that will allow doctors to remove a single defective gene from a human cell and replace it with a normal one, providing a cure.

“That’s the dream,” said materials physics professor Konstantin Kornev. “We are very excited about it.”

Kornev and entomology professor Peter Adler are using a new $696,514 grant from the National Science Foundation to study the mouth, or proboscis, of the butterfly for its ability to drink fluids of different consistencies, such as water and nectar.

“If you can imagine that you are forced to drink honey using a straw, can you assume you’ll be able to do that?” asks Kornev. “These little creatures are ... doing just that.”

For about 200 years, scientists thought that the butterfly proboscis looked like a straw, he said. But they discovered that it actually has two strands, one of which is porous like a sponge.

“It’s like the proverbial magic well,” said Adler. “The more we learn about the butterfly proboscis, the more it has for us to learn about it.”

By studying this function, Kornev said they hope to collaborate with molecular biologists, medical doctors and other scientists on practical applications of what they’ve learned, developing a device that works in roughly the same way -- extracting fluid from a single cell, which is 10 times smaller than the diameter of a human hair, and distinguishing between fluid types.

Initially, they will be working with international collaborators investigating eye diseases, he said.

“This instrument of insects is quite advanced and that’s why we looked at their feeding devices, to see how artificial devices can be made,” he said. “Nature gives you a hint on how to solve the problem.”

The time frame for developing such a device depends on funding and the scientific team, he said. The researchers have been awarded more than $3 million from the foundation for the project since 2009.

“We would like to help with the instruments that would help doctors to get to the spot they cannot reach right now or make point-of-care type devices,” Kornev said.

The researchers’ work, published recently in The Journal of Experimental Biology, illustrates how scientists from different disciplines can work together for the benefit of all.

“The most interesting work happens at the intersection of disciplines,” said Tanju Karanfil, associate dean of research and graduate studies in the College of Engineering and Science.

“In this case, biologists and engineers have come together with different perspectives to answer common questions,” he said. “Their results are encouraging, and I look forward to seeing what they discover next.”

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