Claude Desplan

New York University

Primary Section: 22, Cellular and Developmental Biology
Secondary Section: 27, Evolutionary Biology
Membership Type: Member (elected 2018)


Claude Desplan, D.Sc./Ph.D. Department of Biology, NYU New York. Claude Desplan is a Silver Professor of Biology and of Neuroscience at NYU and an Affiliate Professor at the CGSB at NYU in Abu Dhabi. Dr. Desplan was born in Algeria and was trained at the Ecole Normale Supérieure in St. Cloud, France.  He received his DSc at INSERM in Paris in 1983 working with M.S. Moukhtar and M. 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. 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.  His laboratory also uses ‘evo-devo’ approaches to understand the mechanisms by which sensory systems adapt to different ecological conditions, from flies to ants to butterflies. Dr. Desplan serves on multiple scientific advisory boards and committees for funding agencies. He is an elected member of the AAAS, of EMBO, the New York Academy of Sciences as well as the US National Academy of Sciences. 

Research Interests

We study the generation of neuronal diversity, focusing on the optic lobes of Drosophila, which with 60,000 neurons, drives the sophisticated visual function that allows the fly to perform acrobatic flying at high speed. We defined the nearly 200 cell types that compose the optic lobes, forming 800 parallel circuits corresponding to the 800 unit-eyes (ommatidia) that form a precise 'retinotopic' map. To understand how cell types in the medulla, the largest optic lobe neuropil, are produced, we discovered a temporal series of transcription factors expressed sequentially in 800 neuroblasts that each produces at each temporal window the different neurons that form each of the 800 circuits. This work provided a generalization of the model of temporal patterning that also applies to temporal patterning in the vertebrate retina or cortex. We also discovered that the temporal factors not only determine neuronal fate but also death or survival: at a certain temporal window, NotchON neurons die by apoptosis while at other temporal windows, it is the NotchOFF progeny that dies. Neuronal diversity is further increased by spatial transcription factors that modify the temporal series in neuroblasts to produce locally a smaller number of neurons that innervate multiple columns. Our recent studies with single cell mRNA sequencing led us to discover the rules that direct the developmental and terminal differentiation of optic lobe neurons, in particular their neurotransmitters, their projections to different layers of the visual centers and their connections to specific neurons to form functional neural networks.

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