What we study
How do genes build the potential for an innate animal behavior?
We study this problem using the courtship behaviors of flies.
Many animals, including humans, have instincts––unlearned behaviors that unfold almost automatically in response to some stimulus from the outside world. For a long time, naturalists have recognized that animals are born with their own range of instincts, but where instincts come from, and how the potential to produce them arises during an animal's development has been a mystery.
The Shirangi Laboratory studies this problem using the fruit fly, Drosophila melanogaster. Flies have an amazing variety of elaborate instinctual behaviors especially during social interactions like courtship and mating. A male fly, for instance, will court a female by chasing her and singing a ‘song’ with his wing, whereas a female fly will run away from the male until she decides that it’s time to mate.
Remarkably, these behaviors are ‘wired’ in the fly’s nervous system during development by the actions of genes.
Our lab investigates how genes build neural pathways in the fly's brain that underlie their mating instincts. We use genetics and molecular biology to identify genes that contribute to male and female behavior. We use functional neuroscience, neuroanatomy and behavioral experiments to unravel discrete neural circuits that mediate courtship. Finally, we apply approaches in developmental genetics to understand how a particular gene may assemble a neural pathway for courtship behavior.
Our approach allows us to 'connect the dots' between genes, the development of defined neural pathways, and an innate animal instinct.
Although flies and people differ in many obvious ways, the basic mechanisms that build brains are remarkably similar across different animal species. We thus anticipate that the discoveries we make in flies will help uncover fundamental principles that guide nervous system development and behavior in all animals, include humans.
Our research is supported by the National Science Foundation
The courtship behaviors of Drosophila melanogaster. The male fly courts the female by chasing her and extending a wing to sing a song, among other behaviors.
Video credit: The great Yun Ding
A fly brain with specific neurons critical for male and female behavior labeled in green and red