FARMINGTON — The University of Maine at Farmington announced July 19 that a national research project led by Dr. Timothy Breton, UMF assistant professor of biology, has discovered a new gene in fish that may have an impact on understanding several diseases found in humans, including diabetes, schizophrenia and autism spectrum disorder.

The three-year research project, recently published in the international journal Scientific Reports, is funded by several grants totaling over $75,000 from the National Institutes of Health through the Maine IDeA Network of Biomedical Research Excellence and the MDI Biological Laboratory.

According to a press release from UMF, the gene discovered by Breton and his team of student research assistants is a new member of a family of hormone receptors. Hormone receptors are found on the surface of every cell. They bind to hormones in the body, which causes a cell to do a new task.

Researchers discovered three genes in this family in 2000 and have been working to understand them. Breton’s discovery of the fourth gene may help shed light on how this particular family of hormone receptors works and potential biomedical uses.

“My team is very excited about this discovery,” Breton said in the press release. “Though our current research isn’t looking for a cure for these diseases, it gives scientists a better understanding of how these types of genes work across all vertebrates and hopefully can lead to promising biomedical applications in the future.”

The UMF study used DNA analysis to look at all animals that have these genes and found a fourth with the same DNA signature in a wide variety of fish species.

“This new gene was hiding in plain sight,” Breton said, “but we needed to back up our conclusions with foundational research and hours in the lab and months of extensive computations.

“The ‘aha moment’ happened in 2019 with myself and two UMF student researchers in the UMF science lab in Ricker Hall,” he said. “We realized that based on our computations we had actually discovered a brand new gene, and both students had the same exact reaction, ‘Wow! I can’t wait to tell my mother!’”

UMF students William Sampson, Andrew Wilcox, and Anyssa Phaneuf, from left, work with UMF biology faculty member Timothy Breton, far right. to process animal tissues for analysis on a recent trip to MDI Biological Laboratory. Courtesy of Dustin Updike, MDI Biological Laboratory.

Four UMF students majoring in biology have participated in the UMF-led research project with grant-funded assistantships since 2019. They included Anyssa Phaneuf, a senior from Manchester, N.H.; William Sampson, graduate of the class of 2021 from Windham; Tamera True, graduate of the class of 2020 from Norridgewock; and Andrew Wilcox, graduate of the class of 2021 from Livermore Falls.

Phaneuf’s experience with Breton’s research helped her apply and get accepted into the Summer Honors Undergraduate Research Program at Harvard.

“Working on this project is actually one of the reasons I changed my career plans,” Phaneuf said. “I was originally planning on going to med school, but now I know that I want a career in research and so I will be pursuing a Ph.D. after graduating from UMF.”

Sampson said, “When I started the project, Dr. Breton had already discovered the novel sreb3b gene, so naturally I was excited to get started. I’d never carried out genomics research, quantitative polymerase chain reactions, in situ hybridizations, or been involved in high level scientific writing. But I’ve had a lot of fun working in the Breton lab. I’ve been exposed to so much of the real process of research outside of the classroom. When I’m ready to apply to grad school, I have no doubt that my undergraduate research experience at UMF will give me a boost.”

In addition, Ilze Smidt from Bates College and Benjamin Clifford from Southern Maine Community College were mentored by Breton in 2021 with Maine student summer research fellowships. Other researchers on the project included Taylor Lipscomb and Casey Murray, graduate students from the University of Florida.

Dr. Matthew DiMaggio, assistant professor of Aquaculture at the Tropical Aquaculture Laboratory at the University of Florida, was the major collaborator on the project. All participants are published co-authors of the professional journal article.

The third year of research funding started this summer and runs through spring 2022. Breton and his team will be working with Drs. DiMaggio and Chris Martyniuk, associate professor in the University of Florida’s Department of Physiological Sciences, to continue this work.  This research should provide more insight into how the receptor family works in fish, and help inform future research in humans.