The goal of our research is to understand how complex interactions between genes, neural circuits, and the environment regulate the expression of social behavior.
We use the fruit fly, Drosophila melanogaster, as a model organism. The Drosophila brain contains only ~100,000 neurons providing a “simpler” brain in terms of number yet neuronal properties and cell complexity is comparable to vertebrates. The combination of complex behavior analysis with the most sophisticated arsenal of genetic tools available in a model organism provides us with a unique opportunity to visualize and manipulate individual neurons and distinct neural circuits.
Chemicals displayed as either olfactory stimuli or contact pheromones are used in social behavior to provide information about gender, receptivity, or conspecificity. Yet the mechanisms by which ever-changing pheromonal cues are transduced to reliably produce behavior are not well understood. In our lab, we are testing the hypothesis that sensory cues that trigger aggression and inhibit courtship are reliably transformed into a behavioral output through regulation by the neuromodulator octopamine.
Our current work focuses on:
Determining synaptic and functional connections between individual chemosensory and octopamine neurons.
Determining the functional and anatomical contributions of octopamine receptor neurons to male aggressive and courtship behavior.
Determining how the extracellar matrix contributes to the development of complex amine neurons.
Studies in the Certel lab use genetic, imaging, and behavioral techniques to precisely identify aminergic neurons regulating aggression and to define a sensory to neuromodulatory neuron circuit down to the single cell level. Results from these experiments will bring insight into the fundamental mechanisms by which social behavior is wired into the nervous system of any organism.