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National Institutes of Health awards $1.65 million to University of Dayton researchers to study genetic basis of childhood diseases and birth defects in human eye

By Dave Larsen

The National Institutes of Health awarded two University of Dayton geneticists a five-year, $1.65 million grant to study how genes regulate three-dimensional patterning and growth during early eye development to understand the genetic basis of childhood retinal diseases and birth defects in the human eye.

Department of Biology professors Amit Singh and Madhuri Kango-Singh are co-principal investigators on the grant, which started Aug. 1 and continues through June 2026. They will use the fruit fly eye model to study the genetic machinery involved in regulating how an eye is formed at the cellular level.

Singh’s previous eye development research, funded under a $485,000 National Institutes of Health (NIH) grant awarded in 2017, focused on how genes regulate the process of transforming a single layer of cells into a three-dimensional organ.

That research will expand under the new grant with the addition of Kango-Singh, whose research focus is cancer biology, as co-principal investigator. She will focus on a genetic signaling pathway that regulates growth during eye development.

“Not only do you need to make the structure, but it needs to grow to the right size and in the right way, so that you make what would be normal eyes on the heads of flies,” said Kango-Singh, who was a co-investigator on the 2017 grant. “The same genes function in the development of eyes in other animals and humans, so it could also be interesting to learn about how that process pans out and whether it is involved in birth defects.”

Scientists use fruit flies to model human diseases at the cellular and molecular levels because they have similar genetic traits to those of humans. The fly’s entire life cycle is just 12 days, which allows researchers to study the transmission of hereditary traits and investigate the genetics of disease across at least 24 generations in a year.

Kango-Singh will spearhead the effort to understand how growth pathways regulate this basic process of forming an eye, while Singh will remain focused on the core genetic machinery of eye development.

Their goal is to gain better insights into eye formation, including birth defects associated with a particular transcription factor — a protein involved in the controlling expression of other genes.

“What we have proposed here is that this transcription factor is required for the placement of the eye on the head of an organism,” Singh said. “In layman’s language, eyes are not the same for all organisms on the head — they are placed far apart or close together. We have hypothesized that this transcription factor might be involved in that. It also regulates growth. So, that’s the reason we have brought growth and patterning together, and this can be a new component in the eye development machinery.”

Despite their separate research interests, the couple has collaborated on a number of projects and publications for more than 27 years. In May 2020, they published the second edition of their well-received book about the fruit fly, Molecular Genetics of Axial Patterning, Growth and Disease in Drosophila Eye.

Under the new NIH grant, Singh and Kango-Singh will each hire a postdoctoral researcher and two graduate assistants to work in their respective labs. In addition, Singh recruited six new undergraduate students for the project. Kango-Singh has six undergraduates working in her lab and hopes to hire three or four more to work on the project.

“One of the pillars of UD’s vision is experiential learning for undergraduate students,” Singh said. “We actively involve these students in our research. They are primary authors on peer-reviewed publications. They present at local, regional and international meetings.”

He said exposing undergraduate students to cutting-edge research and instrumentation such as the Olympus confocal laser scanning microscope and Zeiss Apotome fluorescence microscope produces well-rounded scientists who are well-prepared for the job market or graduate school.

Kango-Singh, director of the University’s biology graduate program, credits their NIH grant to the participation of graduate students in their research.

“Having a vibrant graduate program at UD in biology is crucial for the success of all faculty with grants,” she said. “It is the lifeline for success with funding and publications — the two things crucial for growing the reputation of the graduate program and the University.”

Singh said 70% of their success with the NIH grant is due to the hard work of graduate students. “These people are really working 24/7 to make these things happen,” he said.

For more information, visit the Department of Biology website.

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