Joel Levine: On the Fly

U of T Mississauga’s latest Canada Research Chair recipient flies to new heights

Professor Joel LevineWhether piping away on a recorder in a jazz quartet on stage or working with fruit flies in his U of T Mississauga lab, rhythm and timing are important considerations for Biology Professor Joel Levine, who was just awarded a 2015 Tier-I Canada Research Chair (CRC) in Mechanisms and Features of Social Behaviour.

“In our laboratory we study genes, and are especially interested in genes that influence the nervous system and behaviour,” Levine told Dr. Marie McNeely in a People Behind the Science podcast (#169). “We emphasize social behaviour, group dynamics and circadian rhythms.”

“We try to identify the biochemical and cellular mechanisms that support what the whole animal does, and in particular our lab studies flies because we want to know how genes in the nervous system contribute to patterns of social behaviour,” says Levine, who previously held a Tier-II CRC in Neurogenetics from 2004-14.

With his current CRC project, Levine and his group will study the social interaction of Drosophila melanogaster, vinegar or fruit flies as they are more commonly known. There are several social behaviours that Levine is particularly interested in examining, such as feeding, fighting, and mating, which occur at a time and place for gathering within groups. Ultimately his lab seeks to characterize and identify the cell and molecular mechanisms that underlie innate patterns of social interaction. Levine is also very interested in further exploring the social effect on biological timing, and how locomotor activity is impacted when you bring together flies that have been kept on different time zones or schedules.

Levine says that flies are great entities to study because they are easy to maintain, reproduce quickly, they provide lots of resources and opportunities for the study of genes, and the work contributes insights that can be applied to other species, including humans.

After completing his PhD in Anatomy and Structural Biology at the University of Pennsylvania in 1993, Levine held postdoctoral fellowships at Worcester Foundation for Biological Research and then at Harvard University. He also did a postdoc at Brandeis University with Dr. Jeffrey Hall, whom he cites as one of his most significant mentors, along with the great saxophone player and composer John Coltrane, though admittedly he never actually met the musician in person.

Interestingly, music has always played a pivotal role in Levine’s life and to this day it is one of the things he likes to do, when he has spare time in between academic work and spending time with his wife, a physician, and three young sons, whether it’s listening to music or jamming to jazz with his recorder. There was a time in his early years where he waffled between a career in science and one in music, and getting gigs in local pubs in Philadelphia as a recorder player was nearly as tough of a slog then as it is now applying for grant funds. But Levine sees the valuable and lasting influence music has had on his life, and also draws parallels with his life as a musician to his current work in the lab.

“In terms of both music and science, I think there is a common route that involves curiosity and creativity, and also wanting to appreciate things along with the delight that comes with discovery,” says Levine. “I actually don’t view them as all that different.”

Levine’s CRC term is from 2015-20, with the possibility of renewal. The CRC program annually invests roughly $265 million to attract and retain some of the worlds’s most accomplished and promising minds, with Chairholders aiming to achieve research excellence in natural sciences and engineering, health sciences, humanities, and social sciences. 

By Carla DeMarco