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1 Janelia Publications

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    03/06/17 | Moonwalker descending neurons mediate visually evoked retreat in Drosophila.
    Sen R, Wu M, Branson K, Robie A, Rubin GM, Dickson BJ
    Current Biology : CB. 2017 Mar 6;27(5):766-71. doi: 10.1016/j.cub.2017.02.008

    Insects, like most animals, tend to steer away from imminent threats [1-7]. Drosophila melanogaster, for example, generally initiate an escape take-off in response to a looming visual stimulus, mimicking a potential predator [8]. The escape response to a visual threat is, however, flexible [9-12] and can alternatively consist of walking backward away from the perceived threat [11], which may be a more effective response to ambush predators such as nymphal praying mantids [7]. Flexibility in escape behavior may also add an element of unpredictability that makes it difficult for predators to anticipate or learn the prey's likely response [3-6]. Whereas the fly's escape jump has been well studied [8, 9, 13-18], the neuronal underpinnings of evasive walking remain largely unexplored. We previously reported the identification of a cluster of descending neurons-the moonwalker descending neurons (MDNs)-the activity of which is necessary and sufficient to trigger backward walking [19], as well as a population of visual projection neurons-the lobula columnar 16 (LC16) cells-that respond to looming visual stimuli and elicit backward walking and turning [11]. Given the similarity of their activation phenotypes, we hypothesized that LC16 neurons induce backward walking via MDNs and that turning while walking backward might reflect asymmetric activation of the left and right MDNs. Here, we present data from functional imaging, behavioral epistasis, and unilateral activation experiments that support these hypotheses. We conclude that LC16 and MDNs are critical components of the neural circuit that transduces threatening visual stimuli into directional locomotor output.

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