Three NYSCF Innovators Named Howard Hughes Medical Institute Investigators


This past week, NYSCF – Robertson Investigator Alumnae Kay Tye, PhD (2014; Salk Institute for Biological Sciences), Kristy Red-Horse, PhD (2015; Stanford University), and Vanessa Ruta, PhD (2012; The Rockefeller University) were named 2021 Howard Hughes Medical Institute (HHMI) Investigators, a prestigious designation given to scientists performing transformational work.

HHMI is a science philanthropy whose mission is to advance basic biomedical research and science education for the benefit of humanity. Each of its new investigators will receive roughly $8 million over a seven-year period to continue their groundbreaking research.

How Isolation Impacts the Brain

Dr. Tye’s team is aiming to understand the neuroscience behind loneliness and what happens in the brain when animals are isolated for too long. 

“Many of the most successful species on the planet live in social groups,” remarked Dr. Tye. 

Being on one’s own for too long can lead to shorter lifespans, mood disorders, and cancer. Dr. Tye’s team studies animal behavior to determine how individuals balance their social contact. Her lab recently found that stimulating an understudied population of neurons to release dopamine can spark a need for social connection

She hopes this work will guide mental health care and policy surrounding mental health.

Mending Ailing Hearts

Dr. Red-Horse studies collateral arteries: blood vessels that reroute blood to circumvent blockages. Her lab aims to understand how these arteries form, and whether sparking their growth could help treat damage from heart disease.

Collateral arteries were long thought to be a product of a changing capillaries, but Dr. Red-Horse and her team discovered that collateral arteries are, in fact, constructed from the same cells that make up typical arteries. Her lab also identified a protein, CXCL12, that allows collateral arteries to form and migrate to damaged areas.

She hopes this work will inform strategies for repairing damaged hearts.

Inside the Mind of a Mating Fly

Dr. Ruta, who also recently became a MacArthur Fellow, studies the mating behaviors of fruit flies, exploring why males exhibit such a wide range of mating behaviors.

“Almost nothing is known about how evolution has tinkered with brain circuits to produce such endless variation,” she said. 

Dr. Ruta’s team discovered that activating neurons called ‘P1’ in flies drives their courtship techniques. P1 neurons are activated by the sight of a female and the “taste” of pheromone chemicals coating her body, and are even slightly tuned to different female cues, providing information about which females to court.

Next, Dr. Ruta’s team aims to explore how the intensity of P1 activation determines how a male courts and how females use a male’s performance to select their mate.

“[Decoding fruit flies’ elaborate courtship rituals] offers a window into the neural mechanisms of behavioral evolution,” she noted.


Diseases & Conditions:

Cardiovascular Diseases, Neurobiology

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