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Meet Laura Musselman, biological sciences

By Audrey Sapunarich

  Laura Musselman

Laura Musselman traveled in early August from St. Louis to make a new home in Binghamton with her husband, 3-year-old son — and thousands of fruit flies.

Musselman, associate professor of biological sciences at Harpur College, got her bachelor’s in biology at Cornell University and her doctorate in genetics from the University of Utah. As a graduate student in 2001, she began using fruit flies to research how genetics contribute to the effects of diet.

Fruit flies, she said, have all the same organ systems as humans. However, they don’t have an adaptive immune system response, arteries or veins.

“Think of if you shot a hose into a pool,” she said, explaining how all of the nutrients are circulated around the organs just by the heart pumping. “Their heart is affected by high calorie diets the same as the human heart is.”

Musselman has found that when fruit flies are given a high-calorie, high-sugar diet, they show the same spectrum of illnesses as humans who eat poorly, such as cardiovascular disease, high blood sugar, insulin resistance and obesity.

“The most surprising research is that obesity is protective, so if we make flies lean, they suffer on the high-calorie diet much more,” Musselman said. “Fat storage is protective; fat storage doesn’t cause diabetes. High-calorie diets without potential to store those calories cause diabetes.”

She said Type 2 diabetes, her primary focus, is reversed by diet. Like humans, the fruit flies recover and their high blood sugar is resolved when their diet changes.

Musselman said genetics also play a large part in diabetes. For instance, an Asian Indian person (from India, Pakistan and Bangladesh) will develop insulin resistance at a lower body mass index than an Italian person, she said.

“When you meet maximum capacity of fat storage beyond the pre-determined limit, you accumulate toxic lipids,” she said. “High blood sugar, insulin resistance and obesity — that’s basically the definition of diabetes, but obesity is not necessary for this process to occur.”

Lipodystrophy is a general term for disorders that cause partial or complete loss of adipose tissue; adipose tissue is connective tissue that stores fat. Some forms of lipodystrophy are genetic while others are acquired. Genetic lipodystrophy is not reversible.

Musselman said that people with lipodystrophy have very little body fat, yet can become extremely insulin resistant. Liposuction, she said, also does not improve diabetes.

“Just becoming lean doesn’t stop diabetes,” Musselman said.

The fruit flies used for this research are across the hall from her office in Science 3, in the Musselman Laboratory. They come to her from Bloomington, Ind., and Vienna, Austria or other labs that have made a particular fly.

“I have flies that were made all over the world — France, the United States, Germany, Canada, Japan …” Musselman said.

All the flies are genetically modified, except for the control group of wild flies, which are laboratory controlled strains. Larvae take 10 days to become an adult fruit fly, living 30 to 60 days.

“I plan to do this research forever,” Musselman said. “Every question you answer leads to another question.”

Musselman taught a senior seminar in bio-chemistry in the fall. Next semester, Musselman will teach bio-chemistry 302, developing the class with another new professor, Sozanne Solmaz.

“I always wanted to teach at a state school,” Musselman said. “Binghamton seems great so far. The faculty is nice; the students are impressive.”

Musselman, whose parents were biologists, said she has always loved biology and believes that all students should follow their passion.

“People should find something they like to do,“ Musselman said. “I come here on Saturdays because I like it; I fall asleep thinking about it because I like it.”

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Last Updated: 3/1/17