University of Maine at Farmington students William Sampson, left, Andrew Wilcox and Alyssa Phaneuf analyze animal tissues with assistance from Associate Professor Timothy Breton. The team successfully discovered a new gene in fish that could impact the general understanding of certain human diseases. Photo courtesy of Dustin Updike, MDI Biological Laboratory

FARMINGTON — A team of researchers at the University of Maine at Farmington have discovered a new gene in fish that could have implications on the understanding of diseases in humans such as schizophrenia, diabetes and autism spectrum disorder.

The research, a two-year collaboration between UMF Associate Professor of Biology Timothy Breton and students at the college, was published in international, multidisciplinary journal Scientific Reports in June.

“Everyone assumed there were three (genes) in people and so all animals that have these genes must have three and we actually found a brand new fourth one and that actually looked a little bit different and gives us a new way to come at these things and understand what’s going on with them,” said Breton, who led the project.

Breton said that an update to treatments are “a long way off.” However this discovery has “potential” and “by understanding this fourth one in fish, we can understand these diseases more and lead to future biomedical applications.” 

It’s one of those things that’s hiding in plain sight, nobody thought to look this way,” Breton said.

Breton said that making this discovery was a special moment for all involved because “finding something brand new is kind of rare” in scientific studies.

He said that the UMF students were all thrilled to tell their parents about the feat they had accomplished.

“I can’t wait to tell my mom,” one student had said.

“It was really cool to see excitement in student eyes. Going beyond what they do in their classes or read about in the literature or papers, to be a part of a new discovery, it’s really cool,” Breton said.

Andrew Wilcox, a Livermore Falls native and one of the students involved in the project, described the moment of discovery as “quite exciting.”

“It was pretty exhilarating,” Wilcox said.

Breton said that Wilcox and the other students had an “enormous impact” and did a lot of the necessary groundwork.

“Without them, we wouldn’t be able to complete this project,” Breton said.

Along the way, Breton also got help from the MDI Biological Laboratory and a professor at the University of Florida, who provided the fish they conducted analyses on.

The project was funded through a three-year grant from the MDI Biological Laboratory. There’s a year left in the grant and Breton plans to continue exploring this research.

“There’s still more that needs to happen. Once you finish, the research isn’t ever really done, there’s always the next step, especially when you characterize a new gene like this one,” Breton said. “There’s so much more we don’t know, the research opens up a lot of questions.”

The project’s scientific article, titled “Characterization of the G protein-coupled receptor family SREB across fish evolution,” can be found at https://www.nature.com/articles/s41598-021-91590-9.

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