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The Dartmouth
April 19, 2024 | Latest Issue
The Dartmouth

Bosco receives Pioneer Award

Geisel School of Medicine professor Giovanni Bosco was awarded a $3.7 million grant for his epigenetics work.
Geisel School of Medicine professor Giovanni Bosco was awarded a $3.7 million grant for his epigenetics work.

When Giovanni Bosco was a child, he left a small piece of cheese in a plastic ball and found maggots inside the next day.

His fascination with the science behind the small creatures that others might find frightening has paid off. Last week, Bosco, a genetics professor at the Geisel School of Medicine, won the $3.7 million Pioneer Award — a five-year grant sponsored by the National Institute of Health — for his research on the behavioral epigenetics of fruit flies. The sum will continue Bosco’s research.

Behavioral epigenetics is a modern branch of biology that seeks to untangle learned and instinctual behaviors. For example, certain animals are hardwired to fear snakelike movements despite having never seen such a predator before, Bosco said. Bosco’s lab conducts research into whether behavior can be passed through generations by genetics alone and whether certain behavioral memories can become heritable traits.

“If we separated biological twins at birth and put them in different environments, what similarities would they have?” he said. “Of course we can’t do those experiments — they’re not ethical.”

In the research leading up to the grant, Geisel Ph.D. students Balint Kacsoh and Lita Bozler, who work with Bosco on his research, exposed fruit flies to predatory wasps and studied the response.

“It was a crazy idea we were shooting off the wall, and it turned out to be a very positive thing,” Kacsoh said.

They found that in response, mother flies would lay eggs with high amount of ethanol — which is poisonous to wasps — as protection. What was shocking, though, was that these flies’ offspring also had a propensity to find and produce ethanol.

This experiment was essential to securing the grant money, Bosco said.

Bosco, who received a Ph.D. from Brandeis University and was a post-doctoral fellow at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, said fruit flies are a good fit for his experiment since they are cheap to keep alive; they reproduce quickly, and it is simple to induce genetic mutations in them.

One of the challenges in the field, Bozler said, is creating an experiment that would result in a response that researchers could characterize as epigenetic.

“You’re kind of guessing and stumbling around the dark a lot of the time, which is part of the fun. But it’s also a little nerve-racking because it’s my thesis project,” she said. “We’re not sure of the outcome but that’s why he got the grant, because he’s insightful and creative and he is taking a huge risk on the project.”

The Pioneer Award supports scientists conducting high-risk, high-reward research — while the potential impacts of the experiments could be impressive, the researchers also risk finding no results.

Kacsoh and Bozler said the lab — which consists of one undergraduate student, four graduate students, a lab technician and a research associate, in addition to Bosco — has a very open atmosphere that is centered around the spirit of discovery.

“[Bosco] gives us freedom to go chase a crazy idea,” Bozler said.

Bosco noted that scientists in the lab enjoy bantering about the “craziest ideas” — from the molecules in memory, to aliens on different planets, to whether insects can communicate with each other.

Greg Rogers, a cell and molecular biology professor at the University of Arizona who works with fruit fly cells and collaborates with Bosco, said that this project marks a new direction for Bosco, who is an expert in chromosome biology. Rogers said Bosco drew him to the University of Arizona in the first place — Bosco worked there for 10 years — and Bosco interviewed him for his current position.

Rogers said that grants for biology are difficult to acquire, but that groundbreaking results are more likely in novel fields like biological memory.

“This is the kind of five-year grant we’re all trying to get. They really drive science in this country,” Rogers said.

With the money, Bosco said he hopes to expand his lab by hiring post-doctoral fellows and additional graduate students.

In the future, Bosco hopes to study whether the maternal line, rather than the paternal line, causes a difference in inherited behaviors. He might also study whether parents’ ages affect a child’s health outcomes and whether purely survival behaviors are transmitted through generations.Twelve other scientists this year have received a Pioneer Award.

Amanda Zhou

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Amanda Zhou is a junior at Dartmouth College originally from Brookline,  Massachusetts. She’s previously been the associate managing editor, health and wellness beat writer at the Dartmouth and interned at the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette this Fall. She is pursuing a major in quantitative social science and a minor in public policy. At  college, she edits the campus newspaper, serves on the campus EMS squad and lives in the sustainable living center. After graduation, she is interested in a career in journalism or data analysis. In her spare time, she can be found running, cooking or trying to rock climb.