Research Interests

My lab asks how an animal's genes and neural circuits allow it to generate appropriate behavioral responses to the environment. We study the compact nervous system of the nematode C. elegans using genetic, developmental, and behavioral approaches. C. elegans has a rich sense of smell, and innate preferences for certain odors. By studying a mutant that could not respond to the buttery odor diacetyl, we identified the receptor protein that detects this odor. Much of odor discrimination is specified by the interaction of specific receptors with their odorant ligands. Each odorant receptor is expressed in a few olfactory neurons. Activation of a particular olfactory neuron drives a stereotyped behavior, so that the animal knows which behavior to generate by determining which olfactory neuron has been activated. Each neuron has characteristic synaptic connections with other cells. We have identified cells and molecules that act as developmental guideposts for some neuronal connections. Genetic variation in natural populations contributes to the behavioral differences between individuals in a species. Natural C. elegans isolates can exhibit either solitary or social feeding behaviors. Remarkably, a single amino acid change in a neuronal neuropeptide receptor is responsible for much of the natural variation in this behavior.

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Primary Section

Section 24: Cellular and Molecular Neuroscience

Secondary Section

Section 26: Genetics