Florian Engert Named Professor of Molecular and Cellular Biology

Cambridge, Mass. - September 7, 2009 - Neurobiologist Florian Engert, a pioneer in the development of the larval zebrafish as a system for study of neural circuits and behavior, has been named professor of molecular and cellular biology in Harvard University’s Faculty of Arts and Sciences, effective July 1, 2009.

"Professor Engert is a scientist of remarkable scope, having made important contributions to two distinct fields, visual system development and motor system function," says Jeremy Bloxham, dean of science in FAS. "A highly creative researcher, his publications are consistently of the highest quality. He is also an outstanding teacher, a wonderful colleague, and a generous member of the neuroscience community."

The goal of Engert’s zebrafish studies has been a major goal of the field of systems neuroscience: simultaneous observation of all neurons in a fully functioning brain. He was among the earliest adopters of the larval zebrafish as a model organism for such research. These fish are transparent, allowing easy viewing of their neural networks, and can be genetically modified, allowing the use of markers to observe neural behavior.

Engert has developed numerous techniques to monitor neural activity in freely swimming zebrafish larvae, allowing him to observe and measure activity throughout the brains of fish as they undertake normal behaviors. Among other findings, these approaches have shown that no more than 12 neurons on each side of the zebrafish brain control whether the fish navigates left, right, or forward and that the integration of dual visual pathways may have been a relatively simple step in the evolution of binocular vision. His work has also demonstrated that stimulation of individual sensory neurons with light can evoke the same escape response ordinarily caused by a brief touch to the animal’s head or body.

To examine the activity of specific groups of neurons in freely swimming zebrafish, Engert has developed a novel recording technique based on the bioluminescence of Aequorin-GFP, detectable with a photomultiplier tube. This method has allowed the recording of neuronal activity in freely behaving animals over many hours.

Engert received his Diplom in physics in 1993 and his Ph.D. in neurobiology in 1997, both from Ludwig-Maximilians Universität in Munich. He was a postdoctoral researcher at the Max Planck Institute for Neurobiology, University of California, San Diego, and University of California, Berkeley, before joining Harvard as an assistant professor in 2002.

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