Creative Research Medal 2009
Ping Shen, assistant professor of cellular biology, established the fruit fly Drosophila as a model system for the study of feeding motivation, social behavior, and alcoholism. His research showed that foraging motivation and food intake in Drosophila are regulated by the same molecules, signaling pathways, and neurochemical systems as those of mammals. Shen used the techniques of Drosophila genetics and developed novel tests to define neural circuits that modulate an animal’s willingness to take risks and work for food, which is difficult to do in other systems. His pioneering studies are helpful in understanding many human behaviors and disorders of biomedical importance, such as obesity and anorexia, which are increasingly understood as failures of motivated feeding behavior. By taking advantage of a feature of the fly life cycle—its food avoidance as it begins to pupate—he also uncovered an ancient anti-stress/pain pathway in Drosophila, which provides a powerful genetic model for future pain research.