Ethomics: A Technology-Driven Approach to Study the Genetic and Neural Basis of Behavior

Fossil evidence indicates that vision is almost certainly the first sense that enabled animals to negotiate the physical world. Once eyes were sophisticated enough to detect objects in the environment, a core function of the visual circuitry was to determine where something is, what something is, and how to respond. Allen Distinguished Investigator Michael Dickinson and his team at the University of Washington is developing technology that helps answer the question, "How is visual information transformed into behavioral action?" The research represents a deep investigation of the where/what/how problem in fruit flies (Drosophila).

The project has developed a controllable fly-sized robot (Flyatar) that makes it possible to quantify how walking flies react to other flies approaching them from different directions and under different behavioral contexts. A new version of the system (Flyatar Lite) is also being used to study how a male fly can distinguish different parts of the female (such as the head versus the abdomen) as he chases her. With these steps, the project can develop a system for controlling the activation of specific populations of neurons in intact, walking flies and a technique that will make it possible to manipulate cells in the fly's brain as it performs visual-motor behaviors.

In another component of the project, the researchers have developed and implemented a real-time tracking system and graphics engine to present visual and chemical stimuli to free-flying flies within a wind tunnel and to analyze landing behavior. It has also developed a 3-D high-speed video tracking arena that permits the detailed measurement of motor reactions to visual stimuli.

Thus, in its initial stages, the project has made significant progress in developing new techniques for combining molecular genetics with quantitative ethomics in fruit flies. Ethomics is a new biological discipline that brings together the research fields of ethology and genomics. The long term goals of the project are not only to elucidate the circuitry flies use to navigate through their world, but also to identify general principles used by all nervous systems to transform sensory information into cohesive motor commands.

Affiliated Investigators

Michael Dickinson, Ph.D.

University of Washington

Michael Dickinson received a Ph. D. in the Dept. of Zoology at UW in 1989. His dissertation project focused on the physiology of sensory cells on the wings of flies. It was this study of wing sensors that led to an interest in insect aerodynamics and flight control circuitry. He worked briefly at the Max Planck Institute for Biological Cybernetics in Tübingen, Germany, and served as an Assistant Professor in the Dept. of Anatomy at the University of Chicago in 1991. He moved to the University of California, Berkeley in 1996 and was appointed as the Williams Professor in the Department of Integrative Biology in 2000. From 2002 to 2010, he was the Esther and Abe Zarem Professor of Bioengineering at the California Institute of Technology. He currently holds the Benjamin Hall Endowed Chair in Basic Life Sciences at UW. Dickinson’s awards include the Larry Sandler Award from the Genetics Society of America, the Bartholemew Award for Comparative Physiology from the American Society of Zoologists, a Packard Foundation Fellowship in Science and Engineering, and the Quantrell award for Excellence in Undergraduate Teaching at the University of Chicago. In 2001, he was awarded a MacArthur Foundation Fellowship. In 2008, he was inducted into the American Academy of Arts and Sciences.