Every one of the trillion cells in the brain may have a unique identity, according to a study in the March issue of Nature Genetics. This identity may be assigned by a gene called Dscam that works to label the developing brain. The gene is remarkable because it could be expressed in 38,016 different ways in flies, and the same gene in humans has been implicated in Down syndrome.
Andrew Chess and colleagues show that different kinds of cells within the fly nervous system make different types of Dscam protein. The same cell may have more than one form giving each cell a unique identity, helping to ensure that it finds its correct place within the brain. As humans with Down syndrome carry an additional copy of the gene, it is possible that the increased amounts of Dscam could interfere with the formation of connections between brain cells, and so contribute to learning difficulties.
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