Leslie B. Vosshall

The Rockefeller University

Election Year: 2015
Primary Section: 24, Cellular and Molecular Neuroscience
Secondary Section: 26, Genetics
Membership Type: Member


Leslie B. Vosshall is a molecular neurobiologist known for her work on the genetic basis of chemosensory behavior in both insects and humans. Her notable contributions to science include the discovery of the insect odorant receptors, and the elucidation of general principles regarding their function, expression, and the connectivity of the sensory neurons that express them to primary processing centers in the brain. She founded the Rockefeller University Smell Study in 2004 with the goal of understanding the mechanisms by which odor stimuli are converted to olfactory percepts. Her group was the first to associate genetic variation in a single gene with differences in odor perception. She was born in 1965 in Lausanne, Switzerland and grew up in Germany and New Jersey. She graduated from Columbia College in the City of New York in 1987, and earned a PhD in molecular genetics from The Rockefeller University in 1993. Her postdoctoral work in molecular neurobiology was carried out at Columbia University Medical School. She joined the faculty of The Rockefeller University in 2000, and was named an investigator of the Howard Hughes Medical Institute in 2008. She is an elected fellow of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, and a member of the National Academy of Sciences.

Research Interests

Leslie Vosshall’s molecular neurobiology laboratory aims to understand the genetic basis of behavior, with particular emphasis on how organisms perceive and respond to external sensory stimuli and how these responses are modulated by the internal physiological state of the animal. They investigate the molecular mechanisms underlying a diverse array of stereotyped innate behaviors – including the host-seeking behavior of mosquitoes, feeding and courtship behaviors of Drosophila flies, and the genetics and psychophysics of human smell perception. The mosquito genetics research program in the laboratory aims to dissect the genes and circuits that drive female mosquitoes to seek out human hosts. They were the first to apply genome-engineering techniques to the mosquito. Animals that lack the olfactory co-receptor Orco lose the ability to discriminate human from non-human hosts, and no longer avoid the insect repellent DEET. The group generated mosquitoes genetically unable to detect the important chemosensory cue carbon dioxide. These animals show defects in detecting unrelated sensory cues, indicating the multiple sensory cues synergize to drive mosquito behavior. This work opens up the possibility to study a wide variety of sensory pathways in this insect, as well as probing the central brain circuits that govern attraction to humans. Understanding the rules by which these animals target human hosts will enable the discovery of tools to reduce their capacity to spread disease.

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