A group including scientists from the Florida campus of The Scripps Research Institute (TSRI) has been awarded a grant from the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke of the National Institutes of Health to study the role of microRNAs in a range of physiological activities, including memory, sleep, synapse function, and movement.

Ron Davis, chair of TSRI’s Department of Neuroscience, will be a principal investigator of the 5-year study with David Van Vactor of Harvard University, Leslie Griffith of Brandeis University, and Dennis Wall of Stanford University.

“This new collaboration with some of the best scientists at some of the best universities in the world has the potential to bring us a wealth of new and potentially groundbreaking knowledge about microRNAs,” Davis says in a release. “Because microRNAs are so critical for normal development and physiology, they are a potentially rich source of therapeutic targets. Our new collaboration will help us exploit that potential.”

Scripps Florida will receive approximately $2 million for the project over the next 5 years.

MicroRNAs, as their name suggests, are tiny bits of genetic material. Instead of being translated into proteins like many RNAs, microRNAs act to regulate gene expression—acting like a dimmer switch on a light.

In humans there are almost 2,000 distinct microRNAs, which collectively regulate somewhere between 30% and 80% of human genes.

Despite their ubiquity, their importance has become evident only in the last decade or so, and details are still emerging. Davis noted a host of critical questions remain: How complex is the microRNA regulatory landscape for neural circuits mediating essential behaviors? To what extent are microRNA mechanisms used in the brain? Do they regulate distinct sets of target genes in different cell types and/or developmental stages?

The new collaborative study will use Drosophila, the common fruit fly, which is a widely recognized substitute for human memory studies, to help answer some of these questions.

The number of the grant is 1P01NS090994.