Geisel Researcher Receives Prestigious $3.7M National Institutes of Health Pioneer Award

Giovanni Bosco, PhD, an associate professor of genetics at Dartmouth’s Geisel School of Medicine, has been awarded a prestigious $3.7 million grant from the National Institutes of Health (NIH). The five-year Pioneer Award supports exceptional investigators pursuing bold, highly innovative research projects.

“I’m very excited that Gio is receiving this award,” says Geisel Interim Dean Duane Compton, PhD. “The NIH Pioneer Awards are given to only a handful of investigators each year to recognize and support their highly innovative and exciting ideas and projects.”

Bosco’s project began with a highly speculative question: Can the social experiences of parents be inherited by their offspring? It’s the classic nature v. nurture question with a new twist—do specific cellular and molecular mechanisms that underlie the mind-body connection make it possible for a cognitive social experience to alter germline (sperm and egg) cells? Can altered germline information lead to inherited behavior?

“One of the most exciting findings of modern molecular genetics has been that the information encoded in our DNA cannot completely explain heritability of complex traits,” Bosco says. “We are rediscovering how a mind-body connection through cognitive experiences can have profound effects on physiology and health—however, the possibility that cognitive experiences, or state-of-mind, can contribute to heritability is relatively unexplored at the level of molecular genetics.”

As the project’s principal investigator, Bosco and his team are seeking to discover the precise molecules and neuronal networks that connect the mind to the body.

“It’s virtually impossible to study this question in the human population; the time needed to observe patterns of inheritance over multiple generations isn’t feasible,” Bosco explains. Moreover, when studying any behavior it's often impossible to tease apart the influences of society and culture from what we inherit biologically. So what are we left with? The common and sometimes pesky Drosophila, or fruit fly, which reproduces quickly and displays a complex suite of social behaviors that we know are analogous to human behavior.

Despite the remarkable differences in the social behaviors of flies and humans, these complex processes depend on many of the same genes. And because they reproduce every 10 days, it is possible for Bosco and his team to observe the behavior of many Drosophila generations in a relatively short period of time while precisely controlling their environment. “I cannot overstate the value of using a model organism like a fruit fly for basic research that has direct implications to human health and to society,” he says. Using this model, the team led by graduate students Julianna Bozler and Balint Kacsoh will be able to collect hard conclusive data that would not be possible to do with humans or primates.

“A lot of times really phenomenal innovation comes out of things that are elegantly simple—and Gio’s whole assay system, which has to do with these tiny insects, is something that appears to be very simplistic, yet it has relevance to behaviors in our own world that are incredibly complex,” says Leslie Henderson, PhD, a professor of physiology and neurobiology, who has collaborated with Bosco. “In particular, how our social behavior has changed cross-generationally in ways that have profound implications for future generations.”

Because of its speculative nature, Bosco acknowledges this is a high-risk project with no guarantee that anything useful will be learned, but as a scientist, he says, if such trans-generational inheritance of behaviors exist, such as post-traumatic stress related behaviors and critical decisions about existential threats—and he argues they do—then we must understand them at the molecular level. “I want to know how it works at the molecular level so we can break patterns of unhealthy behavior,” he says.

“Professor Bosco's receipt of the Pioneer Award is a signal honor and achievement—Pioneer Award winners represent a handful of life scientists selected as the very best among the best in a trans-NIH competition. A large number of past laureates have been elected to the National Academy,” says Jay C. Dunlap, PhD, chair and professor of genetics at Geisel. “Gio's work is anchored in his remarkable demonstration of trans-generational genetic "memory" that can drive behavior—that experiences in one generation can genetically program offspring and in this way predispose behaviors in the next generation. The hook that cinched the award is the work is being done with fruit flies, a basic genetic model system, that allows him to move well beyond simple description to actual genetic dissection of the basis of the phenomenon.”

As human beings, we all want to know what makes us who we are. Nearly everyone can reach back into family history and find examples of behaviors in ourselves that are exactly like those of a relative we’ve never met or of long ago situations that are eerily similar to our own.

“One of the fun and exciting things about this project is that people immediately get the implications—not only for health and society, but also from a philosophical standpoint—just because we’ve inherited the baggage doesn’t mean we have to carry it,” Bosco says. “I think it’s important to point out that the types of behaviors we are hypothesizing about are critical to the survival of one generation to the next—not behaviors that are context dependent.

“If behavior can filter down to future generations, we can start thinking differently about how we structure our physical and social environments, and how we educate our children,” he says.