Since taking up her group leader position in January, Lucia has hit the ground running, having already recruited two laboratory research scientists, Bill Wray and Raffaella Tulino, as well as her first postdoc, who will join the team in mid-March funded by a EMBO Long-Term postdoctoral Fellowship.
Originally from Madrid, Lucia moved to the UK to do her PhD at the University of Cambridge before taking up a five-year postdoc position in Lausanne, Switzerland.
“I was so excited when I found out that I got the position at the Crick,” said Lucia. “I love its interdisciplinarity, and I immediately thought that there would be lots of opportunities for collaborations.”
The science of smell
The goal of Lucia’s lab is to understand how evolution sculpts nervous systems, giving rise to new behaviours. Studying how neural circuits change over evolutionary timescales can provide important insights into how brains work and what goes wrong in disease.
Her team study these questions using the olfactory systems – parts of the brain that process information about smell – of several fly species as a model.
“Observing animal behavioural diversity I cannot help but wonder: How can brains’ intricate neuronal connections evolve through random mutation and selection to produce all these different behaviours?” said Lucia. “I am absolutely fascinated about this question, and we know so little about it!”
By comparing fly species that exhibit different preferences for the fruit they feed and breed on, Lucia and her team can start to tease apart how neural circuits responsible for odour-guided fruit preference behaviours have evolved.
Some of her flies are fussy eaters, choosing to feed and breed on exotic fruits not stocked in UK supermarkets. Although in the lab they can be maintained on regular fly medium, they are preferentially attracted to their host fruits – this is where you find the flies in nature.
“One of the species we study, D. erecta, prefers the African Pandanus fruits, while another eats West African water berries,” explains Lucia. “For our behavioural experiments sometimes you can trick the flies using juice from the specific fruits, which can be bought online, but in other cases we will need the actual fruit.”
She’s managed to track down two botanical gardens in the UK that have the plants she needs, but they aren’t producing fruit yet. Finding her flies’ favourite cuisines could prove to be a real adventure, but Lucia and her team are up for the challenge.
Lucia’s research requires a multidisciplinary approach, combining a variety of methods across fieldwork, bioinformatics, electrophysiology, imaging, behavioural analysis – such as looking at how the flies react to their favourite fruit – and genetic manipulation.
She has been overwhelmed by the support of the Crick neuroscience and fly communities so far. Though she’s based on the third floor close to the fly facility and the other fly labs, her team does their electrophysiology work on the fifth floor, alongside Andreas Schaefer’s lab, who study olfactory circuits in mice.
“I feel so fortunate to be part of such an amazing and welcoming community of neuroscientists and Drosophila researchers. Being used to the classical lab set up where labs have a self-contained space, I found the Crick lab organisation a bit disorienting at first. However, now I feel that it is brilliant because it enables me to interact with lots of different people on a daily basis,” said Lucia.
Another project that Lucia plans to work on involves a collaboration with Kenyan researchers to study the evolution of the olfactory systems of different tsetse fly species, which are known to transmit parasites that cause sleeping sickness in humans and a related disease in cattle. By expressing tsetse olfactory receptors in Drosophila, the team hope to study the sensitivity of these receptors to gain a better understanding on how these disease vectors find their hosts, which could help design better strategies to control them.
The African connection
In addition to her research, during her PhD Lucia founded and currently co-directs a non-profit organisation to promote scientific research in Africa - TReND in Africa, which stands for ‘Teaching and Research in Natural sciences for development in Africa’. They run sciences courses, donate science equipment and facilitate school outreach programmes. There is also an exchange programme in which scientists based in Europe can go to partner universities in Africa to teach on a voluntary basis.
She was thrilled to learn about the Crick African Network – a fellowship programme to train African researchers and promote cross-continental collaborations. She has already been in contact with its director Robert Wilkinson and co-ordinator Jenny Wilson and she hopes to be able to contribute to this great initiative.
“It’s a cause that is close to my heart, and I’m hoping to be able to create synergistic links between TReND and the Crick African Network,” said Lucia.
With African collaborations to foster and insects to feed, let’s hope Lucia’s lab gets off to a ‘flying’ start.