Claude Desplan

New York University

Election Year: 2018
Primary Section: 22, Cellular and Developmental Biology
Secondary Section: 27, Evolutionary Biology
Membership Type: Member


Dr. Claude Desplan is a Silver Professor of Biology and Neuroscience at NYU and an Affiliate Professor at the CGSB at NYU in Abu Dhabi. He was born in Algeria and was trained at the Ecole Normale Supérieure of St. Cloud, France.  He received his DSc at INSERM in Paris in 1983 working with Drs. Moukhtar and Thomasset on calcium regulation. He joined Pat O’Farrell at UCSF as a postdoc where he demonstrated that the homeodomain, a conserved signature of many developmental genes, is a DNA binding motif.  In 1987, he joined the Faculty of Rockefeller University as an HHMI Assistant and Associate Investigator to pursue structural studies of the homeodomain and the evolution of axis formation.

In 1999, Dr. Desplan joined NYU where he investigates the generation of neural diversity using the Drosophila visual system as a model. His team has described the molecular mechanisms that pattern the eye and showed how stochastic decisions contribute to the diversification of photoreceptors. It also investigates the development and function of the optic lobes where neuronal diversity is generated by spatio-temporal patterning of neuroblasts, a mechanism that also applies to cortical development in mammals. Recently, his lab has also provided a functional understanding of the neuronal and computational mechanisms underlying motion detection.

His laboratory also uses ‘evo-devo’ approaches to understand the mechanisms by which sensory systems adapt to different ecological conditions, from flies to ants, or butterflies.

Research Interests

Dr. Desplan uses the Drosophila visual system as a model to understand the generation of neural diversity. It has brought to light the molecular mechanisms that pattern photoreceptors responsible for color vision and showed how stochastic decisions increase neuronal diversity.

His laboratory sought to understand how color and motion information is processed in the optic lobes by investigating their development and function. It showed that neuronal diversity is generated by a temporal sequence of transcription factors expressed in neuroblasts, by spatial input from patterning genes as well as by binary decisions mediated by the Notch pathway that also control the death or survival of neurons. His lab has also shown how neural development can involve extensive contributions from glial cells to generate neural diversity.

His lab has identified the neurons that perform the computation for motion detection, thus defining the cellular implementation of an ‘elementary motion detector’. In a recent contribution, his lab has also identified the mechanisms of neurogenesis that allow the formation of the retinotopic maps that allow the fly to detect motion in all four cardinal directions.

The Desplan laboratory also uses ‘evo-devo’ approaches to understand the evolution of patterning mechanisms in the visual system. It is using the wasp Nasonia, the ant Harpegnathos as well as butterflies and various dipterans as model systems to explain how evolution shapes the sensory systems of animals to allow them to adapt to their environment.

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