Locomotor Circuits in Drosophila

The Dickson laboratory investigates the neural circuits that control walking in the fruit fly, Drosophila melanogaster. The goal is to understand how local circuits in the nerve cord produce rhythmic motor patterns, how these patterns are co-ordinated across each leg joint and all six legs, and how descending signals from the brain modulate these operations to alter the fly's direction, speed and gait.

The lab started operation at QBI in August 2015. The immediate task was to set up the equipment needed to measure and manipulate neuronal activity in the live nerve cord. Genetically encoded activity reporters and modulators, together with fast volumetric imaging, make it possible to simultaneously monitor the activity of large populations of neurons while acutely manipulating the output of one specific cell type. With this approach, it should be possible to systematically explore the operating principles of the locomotor circuits in the fly's central nervous system.

This system was almost fully functional by year's end, so that the group can now focus on three complementary goals: (1) further expanding the collection of genetic tools that can be used to target activity modulators and reporters to specific cell types, (2) investigating how activity patterns in the nerve cord respond to a descending signal that triggers backward walking, and (3) searching for a complementary descending pathway that initiates forward walking.

Group leader

Professor Barry Dickson

Professor Barry Dickson

Professor, Queensland Brain Institute

  +61 7 334 66328
  b.dickson@uq.edu.au
  UQ Researcher Profile

  • Professor Ansgar Büschges, University of Cologne, Germany
  • Professor Richard Mann, Columbia University, New York
  • Professor Silvia Daun-Gruhn, University of Cologne, Cermany
  • Dr Gwyneth Card, Janelia Research Campus, HHMI, U.S.A.
  • Dr Julie Simpson, Janelia Research Campus, HHMI, U.S.A.

 

   Prof Barry Dickson or Dr Kai Feng

Project: Neural Circuits, Genetics and Behaviour

As animals walk, run, or hop, motor circuits in the spinal cord convert descending “command” signals from the brain into the coordinated movements of many different leg muscles. How are command signals from the brain deconvolved into the appropriate patterns of motor neuron activity? We aim to answer this question for Drosophila by studying the functional organization of leg motor circuits in the ventral nerve cord, the fly’s analogue of the spinal cord. In Drosophila, individual neuronal cell types can be reproducibly identified and manipulated using genetic reagents that have been developed to target specific descending neurons, interneurons, or motor neurons. We have also established imaging pipeline to identify novel neurons that are behaviourally relevant and probe how they talk to each other. A range of projects involving optogenetics, two-photon imaging, machine learning assisted behavioural analysis and circuit modelling are currently open to honours students with a background in any area of molecular biology or experimental or theoretical neuroscience.

 

How to apply

Project 1: Neural Mechanisms of Drosophila locomotion

Background

As animals walk, run, or hop, motor circuits in the spinal cord convert descending “command” signals from the brain into the coordinated movements of many different leg muscles. How are command signals from the brain deconvolved into the appropriate patterns for motor neuron activity?

Project aim

We aim to answer this question for Drosophila by studying the functional organization of leg motor circuits in the ventral nerve cord, the fly’s analogue of the spinal cord. In Drosophila, individual neuronal cell types can be reproducibly identified and manipulated using genetic reagents that have been developed to target specific descending neurons, interneurons, or motor neurons.

Your role

In your thesis project, you will learn a range of methods including genetics, multiphoton imaging, optogenetics and quantitative behavioural analysis, and use these methods to elucidate the structure and function of the motor circuits controlled by a specific class of descending neuron. This may be, for example, a descending neuron that, when activated, causes the fly to walk backwards (see Bidaye et al, Science 6179:97), or one that elicits turning. Understanding the circuit mechanisms behind those simple actions will shed light on general computational principles of neural networks and may even help us to design smarter robots.

How to apply 

Find out about the entry requirements, application procedures, and scholarship information and deadlines.

How to apply

Contact

Contact Professor Barry Dickson via b.dickson@uq.edu.au

 

Research Areas

  • Drosophila (fruit fly) locomotion behaviour
  • Neural circuits involving walking
  • Genetic dissection of cell types in ventral nerve cord
  • Functional connectivity mapping by multiphoton imaging

Our team

Group Leader

 


Research Members

  • Dr Kai Feng

    Research Fellow
    Queensland Brain Institute
  • Dr Deniz Ertekin

    Postdoctoral Student
    Queensland Brain Insitute
    Postdoctoral Research Fellow
    Queensland Brain Institute
  • Mrs Annika Mueller

    Snr Research Assistant/Technician
    Queensland Brain Institute

Students


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