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My group studies the genetic basis of the neural circuits underlying innate behaviors and how these circuits function in the behaving animal. We use the mating behavior of the fruit fly Drosophila melanogaster as a model.
Our previous studies led us to propose that a sex determination regulatory gene, fruitless (fru), is responsible for building the potential for most aspects of male sexual behavior into the central nervous system during development.
About 2 percent of the cells in the nervous system express the male-specific form of fru and these neurons are required for nearly all aspects of male sexual behavior, from the initial recognition of a potential mate, through copulation, and ejaculation. Furthermore, the expression of the fru gene in these neurons is not only necessary, but also sufficient for nearly all aspects of courtship behavior.
We believe the key to understanding this complex innate behavior is to take the neurons expressing fru as a starting point for a bidirectional approach. Thus, one facet of our work is focused on how fru directs the development, morphogenesis, and differentiation of these neurons to build the circuitry for a complex behavior. The second facet of our work is directed at understanding how the neurons in the courtship circuitry function together in the adult to ensure the ordered manifestation of the individual steps of the courtship ritual.