Bargmann was born in Virginia and grew up in Athens, Georgia, one of four children, and the daughter of Rolf Bargmann, a statistician and computer scientist at theUniversity of Georgia. She completed undergraduate studies at the University of Georgia in 1981, with a degree in biochemistry. She completed graduate studies in 1987 at M.I.T. in the lab of Robert Weinberg. She examined the molecular mechanisms of oncogenesis, and helped identify the role of Ras in bladder cancer. She also did significant work onneu, an oncogene that later lead to significant treatments in breast cancer.
Bargmann then completed a postdoc with H. Robert Horvitz at MIT, working on molecular biology mechanisms of neuroscience. She began working on chemosensory behavior in C. elegans, and achieved several breakthroughs, demonstrating, among other things, that nematodes have a sense of smell.
Bargmann accepted a faculty position at UCSF, focusing on olfaction at the molecular level. This work led to discoveries of the mechanisms underlying complex behaviors, such as feeding behaviors. The work has continued to lead to a deeper understanding of the brain, sensory abilities, and neuronal development. Bargmann also identified SYG-1, a "matchmaker" molecule—a molecule that directs neurons to form connections with each other during development.
In 2004, Bargmann moved to Rockefeller University.
Bargmann is married to fellow olfactory scientist and Nobel laureate Richard Axel. Previously, she had been married to Michael J. Finney, who also completed graduate studies at M.I.T. and is now a Director at Sage Science, Inc.
Genes, the environment, and experience interact to shape an animal’s behavior. Caenorhabditis elegans, a worm with just 302 neurons, shows considerable sophistication in its behaviors, and its defined neuronal wiring and genetic accessibility make it an ideal subject in which to study these interactions. Using C. elegans as a model, Dr. Bargmann’s laboratory characterizes genes and neural pathways that allow the nervous system to generate flexible behaviors.
How do genes and the environment interact to generate a variety of behaviors? How are behavioral decisions modified by context and experience? The Bargmann lab is studying the relationships between genes, experience, the nervous system, and behavior in the nematode C. elegans. C. elegans has a nervous system that consists of just 302 neurons with reproducible functions, morphologies, and synaptic connections. Despite this simplicity, many of the genes and signaling mechanisms used in the nematode nervous system are similar to those of mammals. The ability to manipulate the activity of individual genes and neurons in C. elegans makes it possible to determine how neural circuits develop and function.
C. elegans’s most complex behaviors occur in response to smell, and these are at the heart of the lab’s research. The animal can sense hundreds of different odors, discriminate among them, and generate reactions that are appropriate to the odor cue. These behaviors can be traced from molecules, to neurons, to circuits, to behavioral decisions. In C. elegans, as in other animals, odors are detected by G protein coupled odorant receptors on specialized sensory neurons. The odors that activate one sensory neuron regulate a behavioral output such as attraction or avoidance. The lab studies the pathways from sensory input to behavioral output by quantitative analysis of behavior under well-defined conditions, genetic manipulation of animals or individual neuronal cells, and calcium imaging from neurons in living animals.
Dr. Bargmann is also investigating how much flexibility is present in a simple nervous system. For example, C. elegans is capable of learning the odors of different bacteria and avoiding those that previously made it ill. These learned olfactory behaviors are associated with neurochemical changes that lead to rapid behavioral remodeling.
Another interest of the Bargmann laboratory is how genetic variation between individuals can cause them to behave differently from one another. In C. elegans, a single gene determines whether animals prefer to eat alone or in social groups. This gene encodes a neuropeptide receptor, a modulator that integrates multiple sensory inputs to generate coordinated behaviors. A current focus of Dr. Bargmann’s research is on learning how modulatory systems, like this neuropeptide receptor, affect the flow of information between neurons.