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Why Flies and Humans Freeze When Startled

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When faced with something unexpected and potentially ominous, like a sudden, loud noise or a threat of danger, humans often freeze before we act. This is colloquially referred to as the “deer in the headlights” phenomenon. The movie of fruit flies that you see above may help explain the ancient origins of the “startle response” and other biomechanical aspects of motion.

In this video, which shows a footrace between two flies (Drosophila melanogaster), there are no winners or losers. Their dash across the screen provides a world-class view of the biomechanics of walking in these tiny, 3 millimeter-long insects that just won’t sit still.

The fly at the top zips along at about 25 millimeters per second, the normal walking speed for Drosophila. As a six-legged hexapod, the fly walks with a “tripod gait,” alternating between its stance phase—right fore (RF), left middle (LM), and right hind (RH) —and its swing phase sequence of left fore (LF), right middle (RM), and left hind (LH).

The slowpoke at the bottom of the video clocks in at a mere 15 millimeters per second. This fly’s more-tentative gait isn’t due to an injury or a natural lack of speed. What is causing the delay is the rapid release of the chemical messenger serotonin into its nervous system, which models a startle response.

You may have already heard about serotonin because of its role in regulating mood and appetite in humans. Now, a team led by Richard S. Mann and Clare Howard, Columbia University’s Zuckerman Institute, New York, has discovered that fruit flies naturally release serotonin to turn on neural circuits that downshift and steady the speed of their gait.

As detailed recently in Current Biology [1], serotonin is active under myriad conditions to tell flies to slow things down. For example, serotonin helps flies weather the stress of extreme temperatures, conserve energy during bouts of hunger, and even walk upside down on the ceiling.

But the research team, which was supported by the NIH-led Brain Research through Advancing Innovative Neurotechnologies® (BRAIN) Initiative, found that serotonin’s most-powerful effect came during an actual startle response, prompted by a sudden, jolting vibration. Scientists suspect the release of serotonin activates motor neurons much like an emergency brake, stiffening and locking up the fly’s leg joints. When the researchers blocked the fly’s release of serotonin, it interrupted their normal startle response.

In years past, such a detailed, high-resolution “action video” of Drosophila, one of the most-popular model organisms in biology, would have been impossible to produce. Fruit flies are tiny and possess extremely high energy.

But a few years ago, the Mann lab developed the approach used in this video to bring the hurried gait of fruit flies into tight focus [2]. Their system combines an optical touch sensor and high-speed video imaging that records the footfalls of all six of a fly’s feet.

Then, using the lab’s unique software program called FlyWalker , the researchers can extract various biomechanical parameters of walking in time and space. These include step length, footprint alignment, and, as the letters in the video show, the natural sequence of a tripod gait.

Drosophila may be a very distant relative of humans. But these ubiquitous insects that sometimes buzz around our fruit bowls contain many fundamental clues into human biology, whether the area of research is genetics, nutrition, biomechanics, or even the underlying biology of the startle response.

Reference:

[1] Serotonergic Modulation of Walking in Drosophila. Howard CE, Chen CL, Tabachnik T, Hormigo R, Ramdya P, Mann RS. Curr Biol. 2019 Nov 22.

[2] Quantification of gait parameters in freely walking wild type and sensory deprived Drosophila melanogaster. Mendes CS, Bartos I, Akay T, Márka S, Mann RS. Elife. 2013 Jan 8;2:e00231.

Links:

Brain Research through Advancing Innovative Neurotechnologies® (BRAIN) Initiative (NIH)

Mann Lab (Columbia University’s Zuckerman Institute, New York)

MouseWalker Colored Feet (YouTube)

NIH Support: National Institute for Neurological Disorders and Stroke; National Institute of General Medical Sciences


Finding Beauty in the Nervous System of a Fruit Fly Larva

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Wow! Click on the video. If you’ve ever wondered where those pesky flies in your fruit bowl come from, you’re looking at it right now. It’s a fruit fly larva. And this 3D movie offers never-before-seen details into proprioception—the brain’s sixth sense of knowing the body’s location relative to nearby objects or, in this case, fruit.

This live-action video highlights the movement of the young fly’s proprioceptive nerve cells. They send signals to the fly brain that are essential for tracking the body’s position in space and coordinating movement. The colors indicate the depth of the nerve cells inside the body, showing those at the surface (orange) and those further within (blue).

Such movies make it possible, for the first time, to record precisely how every one of these sensory cells is arranged within the body. They also provide a unique window into how body positions are dynamically encoded in these cells, as a segmented larva inches along in search of food.

The video was created using a form of confocal microscopy called Swept Confocally Aligned Planar Excitation, or SCAPE. It captures 3D images by sweeping a sheet of laser light back and forth across a living sample. Even better, it does this while the microscope remains completely stationary—no need for a researcher to move any lenses up or down, or hold a live sample still.

Most impressively, with this new high-speed technology, developed with support from the NIH’s BRAIN Initiative, researchers are now able to capture videos like the one seen above in record time, with each whole volume recorded in under 1/10th of a second! That’s hundreds of times faster than with a conventional microscope, which scans objects point by point.

As reported in Current Biology, the team, led by Elizabeth Hillman and Wesley Grueber, Columbia University, New York, didn’t stop at characterizing the structural details and physical movements of nerve cells involved in proprioception in a crawling larva. In another set of imaging experiments, they went a step further, capturing faint flashes of green in individual labeled nerve cells each time they fired. (You have to look very closely to see them.) With each wave of motion, proprioceptive nerve cells light up in sequence, demonstrating precisely when they are sending signals to the animal’s brain.

From such videos, the researchers have generated a huge amount of data on the position and activity of each proprioceptive nerve cell. The data show that the specific position of each cell makes it uniquely sensitive to changes in position of particular segments of a larva’s body. While most of the proprioceptive nerve cells fired when their respective body segment contracted, others were attuned to fire when a larval segment stretched.

Taken together, the data show that proprioceptive nerve cells provide the brain with a detailed sequence of signals, reflecting each part of a young fly’s undulating body. It’s clear that every proprioceptive neuron has a unique role to play in the process. The researchers now will create similar movies capturing neurons in the fly’s central nervous system.

A holy grail of the BRAIN Initiative is to capture the brain in action. With these advances in imaging larval flies, researchers are getting ever closer to understanding the coordinated activities of an organism’s complete nervous system—though this one is a lot simpler than ours! And perhaps this movie—and the anticipation of the sequels to come—may even inspire a newfound appreciation for those pesky flies that sometimes hover nearby.

Reference:

[1] Characterization of Proprioceptive System Dynamics in Behaving Drosophila Larvae Using High-Speed Volumetric Microscopy. Vaadia RD, Li W, Voleti V, Singhania A, Hillman EMC, Grueber WB. Curr Biol. 2019 Mar 18;29(6):935-944.e4.

Links:

Using Research Organisms to Study Health and Disease (National Institute of General Medical Sciences/NIH)

The Brain Research through Advancing Innovative Neurotechnologies® (BRAIN) Initiative (NIH)

Hillman Lab (Columbia University, New York)

Grueber Lab (Columbia University, New York)

NIH Support: National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke; Eunice Kennedy Shriver National Institute of Child Health and Human Development


Students Contribute to Research Through Ovarian Art

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Ovary from fruit fly
Credit: Crystal D. Rogers and Mariano Loza-Coll, California State University, Northridge

Seeing the development of an organ under a microscope for the first time can be a truly unforgettable experience. But for a class taught by Crystal Rogers at California State University, Northridge, it can also be an award-winning moment.

This image, prepared during a biology lab course, was one of the winners in the 2018 BioArt Scientific Image & Video Competition, sponsored by the Federation of American Societies for Experimental Biology (FASEB). This colorful image shows the tip of an ovary from a fruit fly (Drosophila melanogaster), provided by Mariano Loza-Coll. You can see that the ovary is packed with oocytes (DNA stained blue). The orderly connective structure (pink) and signal-transmitting molecules like STAT (yellow) are common to egg maturation and reproductive processes in humans.

What makes this image unique among this year’s BioArt winners is that the prep work was done by undergraduate students just learning how to work in a lab. They did the tissue dissections, molecular labeling, and beautiful stainings in preparation for Rogers to “snap” the photo on her research lab’s optical-sectioning microscope.

What’s also fantastic is that many of Rogers’s students are from groups traditionally underrepresented in biomedicine. Many are considering careers in research and, from the looks of things, they are off to a beautiful start.

After teaching classes, Rogers also has an NIH-supported lab to run. She and her team study salamanders and chickens to determine how biological “glue” proteins, called cadherins, help to create neural crest cells, a critical cell type that arises very early in development [1].

For developmental biologists, it’s essential to understand what prompts these neural crest cells to migrate to locations throughout the body, from the heart to the skin to the cranium, or head. For example, cranial neural crest cells at first produce what appears to be the same generic, undifferentiated facial template in vertebrate species. And yet, neural crest cells and the surrounding ectodermal cells go on to generate craniofacial structures as distinct as the beak of a toucan, the tusk of a boar, or the horn of a rhinoceros.

But if the organ of interest is an ovary, the fruit fly has long been a go-to organism to learn more. Not only does the fruit fly open a window into ovarian development and health issues like infertility, it showcases the extraordinary beauty of biology.

Reference:

[1] A catenin-dependent balance between N-cadherin and E-cadherin controls neuroectodermal cell fate choices. Rogers CD, Sorrells LK, Bronner ME. Mech Dev. 2018 Aug;152:44-56.

Links:

Rogers Lab (California State University, Northridge)

BioArt Scientific Image & Video Competition (Federation of American Societies for Experimental Biology, Bethesda, MD)

NIH Support: Eunice Kennedy Shriver National Institute of Child Health and Human Development


A Fantastic WALS Lecture

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Francis Collins, Gerald Rubin, and Benjamin White
A big thanks to Gerald Rubin (center), vice president of Howard Hughes Medical Institute, Chevy Chase, MD, and executive director of Janelia Research Campus, Ashburn, VA, for taking part in the NIH’s Wednesday Afternoon Lecture Series (WALS). He delivered a fantastic talk titled “What the fly brain can teach us about the neural mechanisms of complex behaviors.” Afterwards, I presented him with a framed WALS certificate of appreciation. Joining us is Benjamin White (right), chief of the Section of Neural Function at NIH’s National Institute of Mental Health. The WALS lecture was held on January 30, 2019.

Creative Minds: Building a CRISPR Gene Drive Against Malaria

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Valentino Gantz

Valentino Gantz/Credit: Erik Jepsen

Researchers have used Drosophila melanogaster, the common fruit fly that sometimes hovers around kitchens, to make seminal discoveries involving genetics, the nervous system, and behavior, just to name a few. Could a new life-saving approach to prevent malaria be next? Valentino Gantz, a researcher at the University of California, San Diego, is on a path to answer that question.

Gantz has received a 2016 NIH Director’s Early Independence Award to use Drosophila to hone a new bioengineered tool that acts as a so-called “gene drive,” which spreads a new genetically encoded trait through a population much faster than would otherwise be possible. The lessons learned while working with flies will ultimately be applied to developing a more foolproof system for use in mosquitoes with the hope of stopping the transmission of malaria and potentially other serious mosquito-borne diseases.


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