Thomas Werner

Thomas Werner


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Assistant Professor, Biological Sciences

  • PhD, Umea University, Sweden, 2005

Scientific Background

Dr. Werner became interested in the question “What is life?” as a four-year old child in his parent’s garden in former East Germany. With the age of 10, he began to develop a life-long interest in the biology of butterflies and moths. He has been breeding and collecting them ever since. For his Master’s thesis, he decided to shift his focus to molecular biology because this was a newly emerging field of biology that promised new jobs. Thus, Dr. Thomas Werner studied the human heart disease-causing virus Coxsackie B3 at the molecular level at Friedrich-Schiller-University Jena in Germany. After the fall of the Berlin Wall, Dr. Werner made one of his childhood dreams become true and moved to Sweden. He spent seven years in Umeå, working on his Ph.D. thesis about the innate immune response in the fruit fly Drosophila melanogaster. During this time at Umeå University in Dr. Dan Hultmark’s lab, he discovered and described a new family of immune genes that we humans share with flies and many other animals. In 2005, Dr. Werner shifted his research focus towards evolution of development (evo-devo) and worked as a postdoctoral fellow at the University of Wisconsin-Madison in Dr. Sean B. Carroll’s lab, where he established the fruit fly Drosophila guttifera as a new transgenic model organism to investigate how complex animal color patterns evolve.

Drosophila guttifera: Left wing: natural color. Right wing: Vein Spot Enhancer (turquoise) and Intervein Shade Enhancer (red) drive the yellow gene to make the color pattern seen on the left.

Current Research Project 1: The evolution and development of complex animal color patterns in Drosophila

Animal color patterns such as zebra stripes, leopard spots, and the myriad variants of butterfly wing color patterns are known to play important ecological and physiological roles in the life of animals and are crucial for the survival of species. Scientists first tried to solve the secret of animal color patterns with mathematical approaches to find models that could explain how these patterns developed. In 1952, Turing, the inventor of the computer, proposed the famous reaction-diffusion model in which a short-range acting activator molecule diffuses from a source to stimulate color production, while a long-range acting inhibitor molecule prevents pigmentation. Using the spectacularly ornamented fruit fly Drosophila guttifera, we identified that the Wingless morphogen had evolved a new function in this species by activating the yellow gene, causing many black melanin spots to appear on the wings. Humans also have the wingless gene, which is a known proto-oncogene (called Wnt-1). Wnt-1 is overexpressed in many tumors, which causes the tumors to proliferate.  We are currently investigating if the color patterns on the abdomen and thorax of Drosophila guttifera are generated by the same pathway as on the wing, or if other proto-oncogenes have evolved a link to pigmentation. Elucidating the pigmentation pathways in this fruit fly can help us understand how cancer-inducing pathways are regulated and how they have evolved.

Current Research Project 2: The evolution of mushroom poison (alpha-amanitin) resistance in Drosophila

Just one Death Cap or Destroying Angel mushroom contains enough toxin to kill a person. Alpha-amanitin is the principal toxin in these deadly-poisonous mushrooms. However, poisonous mushrooms generally contain a mixture of different toxins that target various tissues. Because alpha-amanitin targets the RNA-polymerase II and renders it non-functional, almost all eukaryotic organisms are very sensitive to this toxin. Only a handful of organisms on the planet can eat these mushrooms and survive without harm. Some Drosophila species belong to the resistant organisms. Interestingly, their RNA-polymerase II is highly sensitive to the toxin. Thus, there must be detoxification and/or excretion mechanisms that allow these flies to consume these mushrooms, so that the toxins don’t get to their targets. Being able to eat poisonous mushrooms both provides a unique niche in the eco-system and also kills parasites that would otherwise render the flies sterile. The main goal of Dr. Werner’s research is to elucidate the molecular-genetic mechanisms that cause alpha-amanitin resistance in Drosophila.


Links of Interest

Research Interests

  • Evolution
  • Genetics
  • Toxicology
  • Developmental Biology

Recent Publications

  • Mitchell, C.M., Yeager, R.D., Johnson, Z.J., D’Annunzio, S.E., Vogel, K.R., Werner, T. (2015) Long-term resistance of Drosophila melanogaster to the mushroom toxin alpha-amanitin. PLoS ONE May 15 DOI:10.1371/journal.pone.0127569 Read More
  • Werner T. (2015) Leopard spots and zebra stripes on fruit fly wings. Nature Education 8(2):3 Read More
  • Mitchell, C.M., Saul, M.C., Lei, L., Wei, H., Werner, T. (2014) The Mechanisms Underlying Alpha-Amanitin Resistance in Drosophila melanogaster: A Microarray Analysis. PLoS ONE. Apr 2;9(4):e93489. doi: 10.1371/journal.pone.0093489 Read More
  • Bray, M.J., Werner, T., Dyer, K.A. (2014) Two genomic regions together cause dark abdominal pigmentation in Drosophila tenebrosa. Heredity 112, 454-462. (11 December 2013) doi:10.1038/hdy.2013.124 Read More
  • Werner T., Koshikawa S., Williams T.M., Carroll S.B. (2010) Generation of a novel wing color pattern by the Wingless morphogen. Nature, Vol. 464, pp. 1143-1148. Read More
  • Rebeiz M., Ramos-Womack M., Jeong S., Andolfatto P., Werner T., True J., Stern D.L., Carroll S.B. (2009) Evolution of the tan Locus Contributed to Pigment Loss in Drosophila santomea: A Response to Matute et al. Cell, Vol. 139, pp. 1189-1196. Read More
  • Williams T.M. , Selegue J.E., Werner T., Gompel N., Kopp A., and Carroll S. B. (2008) The Regulation and Evolution of a Genetic Switch Controlling Sexually Dimorphic Traits in Drosophila. Cell, Vol. 134, pp. 610–623. Read More
  • Jeong S., Rebeiz M., Andolfatto P., Werner T., True J., Carroll S.B. (2008) The Evolution of Gene Regulation Underlies a Morphological Difference between Two Drosophila Sister Species. Cell, Vol. 132, pp. 783-93. Read More

Grants and Awards

  • Research Excellence Fund – Research Seed Grant Michigan Tech (2015 – 2016)
  • Sponsor for Peter Nouhan: Summer Undergraduate Research Fellowship (2015)
  • Huron Mountain Wildlife Foundation Grant 2015
  • Huron Mountain Wildlife Foundation Grant 2014
  • Sponsor for Dr. Kelly Dyer's Visiting and Women and Minority Lecturer/Scholar Series (VWMLS) 2014
  • Sponsor for Mark Keranen: Summer Undergraduate Research Fellowship (2014)
  • Winner of the Distinguished Teaching Award (2013)
  • Nominated for the D. Williams Instructional Innovation Award (2013)
  • Finalist for the Distinguished Teaching Award (2013)
  • Research Excellence Fund – Research Seed Grant Michigan Tech (2012 – 2013)
  • Research Excellence Fund – Mentoring Grant Michigan Tech (2012 – 2013)
  • Induction into the Academy of Teaching Excellence (2012)
  • Finalist for the Distinguished Teaching Award (2012)
  • Sponsor for Felicia Nip: Summer Undergraduate Research Fellowship (2012)
  • Sponsor for Zac Johnson: Summer Undergraduate Research Fellowship (2012)
  • Sponsor for Luke Whitehouse: Finan Endowment Michigan Tech Fund Grant (2011)
  • Sponsor for Emily Geiger: Alumni Association Graduate Award (2011)
  • Sponsor for Emily Geiger: King-Chavez-Parks Future Faculty Fellowship (2011)
  • Postdoctoral Long-term fellowship HFSP for the USA (Human Frontier Science Program), June 2005 - May 2008.
  • Postdoctoral Long-term fellowship EMBO for the USA (European Molecular Biology Organization) - declined in favor of the HFSP fellowship.
  • Graduate fellowship in Sweden (Umeå University), April 1998 - March 2000.
  • Special award at the national youth science and technology competition “Jugend Forscht” (“Youth researches”) for a project about butterflies and moths. Mainz, GERMANY, 1990.

Research Projects

  • The evolution and development of complex animal color patterns in Drosophila
  • The evolution of mushroom poison (alpha-amanitin) resistance in Drosophila

Teaching Experience

  • Genetics (lecture) since 2012
  • Genetic Techniques (lab) since 2011
  • General Immunology (lecture) since 2011