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Wasp Gene Link to Autism, Schizophrenia

Image of wasp

The NRXN1 gene exists in three species of Nasonia wasps.

By Stephen Luntz

Genes believed to be implicated in autism and schizophrenia have been found in the sequencing of the genome of three species of parasitic wasp, indicating they are extraordinarily ancient and essential for animal survival.

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The protein neurexin 1 is linked to learning in species as diverse as mice, humans and honeybees. Defects in the protein are common in families where autism and impaired social interactions are common.

Bee brains are flooded with neurexin 1 when they learn to associate odours with food. The protein helps form connections between neighbouring neurons, providing the linkage essential to the operation of learning in the brain.

The Queensland Brain Institute (QBI) has demonstrated that the NRXN1 gene exists in three species of Nasonia wasps. The previous discovery of the gene in flies and bees demonstrated that it must be very ancient, but its presence in insects smaller than a pinhead reveals its widespread evolutionary conservation.

“Together these organisms provide important new tools for studying the molecular basis of brain function. Using these insect models, we can now examine the role of genes involved in connecting neurons in the brain,” says QBI researcher Dr Alexandre Cristino.

The QBI team also identified the gene responsible for the neuroligin protein, whose variations are also believed to contribute to autism and schizophrenia.

Team leader Dr Charles Claudianos says there are reasons besides the contribution to neuroscience to study the Nasonia wasps. “There are over 600,000 species of these parasitoids in nature that can be...

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