Neural basis of behavioral evolution
How do species-specific behaviors evolve?
From dancing honeybees to migrating birds who navigate star maps, animal behaviors have fascinated us for centuries. Evolutionary biologists have long recognized the fundamental role that behavior plays in the origin and evolution of biodiversity across the tree of life. How does the nervous system generate divergent species-specific behaviors over evolutionary timescales? I am applying a comparative evolutionary framework to study how peripheral sensory systems such as the sense of smell (see below) coevolve with higher order brain centers to adapt behavioral repertoires across Drosophila species. Using a combination of ecologically inspired ethological approaches, optogenetics, circuit and sensory neuroscience accessible through transgenesis, neurogenetics, and in vivo functional two-photon microscopy, I study the morphological and functional diversification of neural populations and circuits to understand the neurological principles underlying the evolution of behaviors such as courtship and mating.
Molecular evolution of olfaction
How do chemosensory gene repertoires evolve?
Animals have evolved sophisticated sensory systems that can detect and discriminate environmental chemicals and provide precise information about food, enemies, and mating partners. The chemosensory system of insects – including the senses of smell and taste – relies on a suite of chemosensory genes expressed in sensory sensillae. It is the interaction of chemical molecules with these chemosensory proteins that initiates the signal transduction and transmission toward the olfactory centers in the insect brain. The entire repertoire of the chemosensory genes expressed in the chemosensory organs determines the spectrum of chemicals that an insect species can detect and eventually ‘sense’. I am interested in the molecular mechanisms that shape the chemosensory gene set in insects – especially in bees. This includes the evolution of genomic organization, gene duplications, and the importance of positive selection in gene diversification.
How do evolutionary changes in odorant receptors impact receptor function?
Odorant receptors represent one of the largest gene families in insect genomes. Most bee genomes (including orchid bees!) encode between 140 and 170 functional odorant receptor genes that together define the majority of the volatile chemical detection capability of the sense of smell. Insects detect olfactory signals and cues via olfactory sensory neurons located in sensillae on the antenna. Each olfactory sensory neuron expresses odorant receptor proteins on the cell membrane. Chemical molecules are ligands to these receptors and trigger neurophysiological responses that are subsequently integrated by the brain. We have identified several odorant receptor genes with mutations that evolve under strong positive selection in single lineages of orchid bees. I am currently working on the functional characterization of these candidate genes in different lineages to understand the functional repercussions of the observed mutations and positive selection pressures.
What role does the evolution of pheromone communication play in speciation?
I investigate the genetic mechanisms of changes in perfume production, chemosensory detection, and their importance in the generation and maintenance of species boundaries in sibling species of orchid bees. Specifically I am using population genetics to understand interspecific and intraspecific divergence between closely related species. Further, I analyze the chemical perfume composition of males throughout populations and species (Popchem if you will..) and test whether changes in chemistry are correlated with changes in the genome. This way I combine perfume chemistry and chemosensory gene evolution in a population genetic framework to understand the importance of chemosensory diversification in orchid bee speciation. In addition, I am testing divergent odorant receptors between populations and species for functional differences. Together, this has the potential to understand the role of olfactory gene evolution in speciation.
Neurobiology and perfume collection in orchid bees
What is the genetic basis of perfume collection behavior?
Orchid bee males collect scents to produce perfumes throughout their entire life and store them in pouches in their hindlegs. Although compounds have to be collected from multiple sources in extremely heterogeneous habitats, perfume phenotypes of experienced males are not only species-specific in compound composition but also in the relative abundance of compounds. How do male orchid bees regulate the collection of a large number of scents in distinct quantities from their environment in order to produce highly specific pheromone (perfume) blends? It has been shown that males do not reassess the chemicals they already collected. I am testing what mechanism (for example odor memory) orchid bee males use to produce a species-specific perfume that includes a variety of different chemicals from different sources and what the molecular mechanisms are.
What is the neurological basis of olfactory processing in orchid bees?
In collaboration with Jean-Christophe Sandoz at the CNRS in France, I recently analyzed the morphology of olfactory brain regions to test whether changes in perfume communication occur alongside changes of brain regions important for the formation of the sense of smell. I am also interested in how the orchid bee brain is organized in comparison to other bee species to understand the evolution of perfume collection.