Credit: ® Roy Ritchie By the end of high school, Patricia Wittkopp was so over fruit flies. They had sparked her passion for genetics, but as she shopped around for an undergraduate research project at the University of Michigan, Wittkopp wanted more. "I remember thinking to myself, 'We already did a fruit fly lab in high school, and I want to do something else'," she says." /> Credit: ® Roy Ritchie By the end of high school, Patricia Wittkopp was so over fruit flies. They had sparked her passion for genetics, but as she shopped around for an undergraduate research project at the University of Michigan, Wittkopp wanted more. "I remember thinking to myself, 'We already did a fruit fly lab in high school, and I want to do something else'," she says." />
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Cellular Research
Cellular Research

Patricia Wittkopp: Fresh eyes on flies

Credit: ® Roy Ritchie" /> Credit: ® Roy Ritchie By the end of high school, Patricia Wittkopp was so over fruit flies. They had sparked her passion for genetics, but as she shopped around for an undergraduate research project at the University of Michigan, Wittkopp wanted more. "I remember thinking to myself, 'We already did a fruit fly lab in high school, and I want to do something else'," she says.

By | October 1, 2008

<figcaption> Credit: ® Roy Ritchie</figcaption>
Credit: ® Roy Ritchie

By the end of high school, Patricia Wittkopp was so over fruit flies. They had sparked her passion for genetics, but as she shopped around for an undergraduate research project at the University of Michigan, Wittkopp wanted more. "I remember thinking to myself, 'We already did a fruit fly lab in high school, and I want to do something else'," she says.

Reluctantly researching Drosophila again, Wittkopp identified hidden genetic variation lurking in otherwise phenotypically identical wild fruit flies. Now an associate professor at the University of Michigan, she continues to pursue fundamental biological questions, and more than a decade after she thought she was done with them, the fruit fly is still her model organism of choice. "Clearly I had much more to learn," Wittkopp concedes.

"She had done a lot of interesting and surprising work" as an undergrad, says Sean Carroll, a University of Wisconsin molecular biologist and Wittkopp's PhD advisor. In 1997 Wittkopp entered graduate school with a technical aptitude that few incoming grad students possess, he says. "By the time I got to graduate school, I felt comfortable discussing science and formulating hypotheses," Wittkopp recalls.

In 2002 Wittkopp and colleagues found that three species of Drosophila displayed distinct color patterns due to differing expression of only one gene, called yellow.1 Through that work, Wittkopp also established one of those species, Drosophila virilis, as an important model organism.

Later on, Wittkopp crossed two inter-fertile Drosophila species with different pigmentation patterns and studied genetic development in the resulting offspring. She found that the two fly species' pigment differences resulted from expression changes in the ebony and not the yellow gene.2 This meant that even similar pigment patterns in divergent species may have evolved through regulatory changes at different loci.

As a postdoc in the Cornell University lab of Andrew Clark, Wittkopp developed a technique using pyrosequencing to rapidly characterize the genetic mechanisms at play in these types of gene expression differences. "She was extremely careful in working out the protocols to be highly repeatable and quantitative," says Clark. By the end of her postdoc, Wittkopp had described the relative contributions of cis and trans gene regulation in inciting differential gene expression patterns in 29 genes shared by two Drosophila species.3

Wittkopp says her goal is to elucidate the rules of gene regulation and expression that underlie animal evolution. "It's a completely open empirical question," she says.

There's no telling where Wittkopp's scientific curiosity will take her, says Carroll; she's already using yeast to characterize the basic properties of gene expression. "She has both the discipline and the ability to really achieve. I'm very confident that she's going to have a very shining career."

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