Francis Crick Institute group leaders, Lucia Prieto-Godino and Samuel Rodriques, will begin a new study of behavioural evolution, supported by a £1.1million Allen Distinguished Investigators Award from The Paul G Allen Frontiers Group.
They aim to understand the evolutionary changes in fruit fly brains that enabled a new instinctual behaviour in one species of fruit fly larvae known as Scaptodrosophila latifasciaeformis, which has evolved to jump 10 times their body length in the air.
Using a newly developed method known as optical connectomics, which allows scientists to map connections between neurons in the brain at a much larger scale than is possible with traditional techniques, the team plan to map the neurons in the fruit fly brains and their connections involved in motion in the larvae.
They will then compare the Scaptodrosophila motor neurons and circuits to those of the commonly studied fruit fly, Drosophila melanogaster, to better understand whether the jumping behaviour evolved due to changes in the types of neurons, their connections, or both.
Lucia Prieto-Godino, head of the Crick’s Neural Circuits and Evolution Laboratory, said: “We still know very little about how behaviours evolve to give rise to the immense behavioural diversity we can observe across different species. The cues to understanding this are hidden in the neurons and the way they’re connected in the brain.
“By starting with fruit fly species, which have complex brains but with fewer neurons than those of larger animals, we can improve our understanding of nerve cell connections and their consequences, which could provide valuable insight into how our own brains are wired.”
Samuel Rodriques, head of the Crick’s Applied Biotechnology Laboratory, said: “Connectomic technologies will transform our ability to study the complexities of the brain and map the billions of connections to trace their purpose.
“Not only will this study provide valuable insight into how behaviours evolve, it will also enable us to further push the boundaries of what’s possible with connectomics and improve the technologies we have.”
Lucia and Sam’s award is one of 11 recommended by the Frontiers Group, to support cutting-edge, early-stage research projects that promise to advance the fields of biology and medicine. They will form part of the largest single cohort of Allen Distinguished Investigators announced since the program’s inception, representing a total of $15.5 million in funding from the Paul G. Allen Family Foundation.
“We’re so excited about this new group of Allen Distinguished Investigators. They have transformative research visions and we’re thrilled to help bring those ideas to life,” said Kathy Richmond, Ph.D., M.B.A., Executive Vice President and Director of the Frontiers Group and the Office of Science and Technology at the Allen Institute.
“They’re provocative and innovative with their approaches to science and with the ambitious goals they’ve set. They’re just fearless.”