UF alumnus Fred Gage delivers William G. Luttge Lectureship in Neuroscience
Renowned neuroscientist and University of Florida alumnus Fred H. Gage, Ph.D., returned to campus recently to deliver the William G. Luttge Lectureship in Neuroscience.
Gage, who received a bachelor’s degree in psychology in 1972, is a professor and researcher in the Laboratory of Genetics at the Salk Institute for Biological Studies in La Jolla, California.
His May 4 lecture, titled “Neuronal Plasticity and Genomic Diversity,” was delivered to a standing-room crowd of more than 100 people at the Evelyn F. and William L. McKnight Brain Institute of the University of Florida.
The lecture is held each year in honor of William G. “Bill” Luttge, the founder of the McKnight Brain Institute. Luttge, who established one of the nation’s first neuroscience programs at UF, died in March 2012. The lectureship is funded by a donation from the McKnight Brain Research Foundation.
Gage’s lecture focused on the evolutionary impact of mobile DNA, which can cause a host of genetic variations and mutations by changing places in the genome. More broadly, mobile DNA may influence normal brain function, contribute to some neurological disorders and have a role in genome evolution.
“You are unique,” Gage said. “Not only are you a product of your genes and your environment, you’re also a product of chance. That chance is driven by these mobile elements that are occurring at various levels in your body.”
Mobile DNA also may have played a significant role in the evolutionary process that differentiates humans from primates, Gage said. As their evolutionary paths diverged millions of years ago, primates retained and grew their genetic diversity while humans did so to a lesser degree.
That led Gage to a big idea, which he said remains speculative: Over time, humans have found ways to compensate for a relative lack of genetic diversity that might otherwise threaten their long-term survival. Humans came to rely on so-called “cultural evolution” rather than biological evolution, Gage said.
Developing new technologies such as medicine is one way that humans have adjusted culturally rather than biologically, he said.
“We have viruses that are acting on our human population, so we build hospitals. We do things culturally that allow us to adapt,” he said.
Humans are more dependent than ever on their ability to adapt to their surroundings through cultural rather than biological evolution, he said.
“We’re stepping aside from using biological evolution as a means for evolving our species,” he said.
Delivering the lecture also gave Gage the chance to return to his scientific roots. The summer after his freshman year, Gage started working in a UF research lab. He spent the next three years studying electrophysiology and the hippocampus, a part of the brain that controls memory formation and spatial navigation.
Gage went on to earn a Ph.D. in psychology from The Johns Hopkins University. At the Salk Institute, Gage and his colleagues found that an adult brain can produce new neurons, a groundbreaking discovery that reversed long-standing scientific doctrine.
Other work by Gage and his Salk Institute colleagues includes studying the genetic origins of Rett syndrome, a rare neurological condition that is considered one of the autism spectrum disorders.
Lucia Notterpek, Ph.D., chair of the department of neuroscience at the UF College of Medicine, introduced Gage by noting “an incredible record of accomplishments” that includes writing more than 730 research articles and book chapters. He is a fellow of the National Academy of Sciences, the Institute of Medicine, the American Philosophical Society and the American Academy of Arts and Sciences.
He also served a term as president of the Society for Neuroscience, the world’s largest group of brain and nervous system researchers and physicians.
In addition to his work on neurogenesis, Gage is well-known for being part of a group of scientists who found that the brain contains many genetically distinct neurons, said Leonid L. Moroz, Ph.D., a distinguished professor in the department of neuroscience. Gage has had substantial accomplishments because he is “a great thinker who approaches scientific questions and issues differently than many other people in the field,” Moroz said.