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Social interactions are crucial to the proper development and health of individuals, but the genetic and neural bases of social behaviour are still poorly understood.
In my lab, we are interested in determining the neurogenetic mechanisms by which animals respond to the presence of another similar individual. How does an animal decide what to do with the information that another individual is nearby? What are the neurogenetic circuitries underlying social interactions?
Arguably, the power of Drosophila melanogaster tools and reagents has been underused to answer these questions, in part because of a lack of proper behavioral paradigms. The paradigms that we have developed contribute to fill that need. We measure flies’ preferred social space (space "bubble"): in an undisturbed group, flies will settle a reproducible distance that will depend on their genotype and their environment (social experience, their age and that their parents, or exposure to toxins). We also quantify another type of response to social cues: flies strongly avoid the volatile substance Drosophila stressed odorant (dSO) emitted by stressed flies. Those paradigms have the advantage of being straightforward to implement, which allow us to pursue several lines of research, falling under two main umbrellas:
Fundamental Behavioural Genetics questions:
We are pursuing the neurogenetic characterisation of social space behaviours in Drosophila, trying to define the neural circuitry underlying the social distance preference. We address these questions using both genetic mutants and biochemical approaches; and we will identify the neuronal circuitry responsible for individual space determination, dSO avoidance, and through a screen blocking and enhancing synaptic transmission, using specific drivers.
We also are interested in better characterizing dSO, its emission, its reception, and its composition (beyond CO2).
Study of candidate genes:
Taking advantage of the simple behavioural paradigms and use them as diagnostic tools to elucidate conserved pathways underlying candidate genes or environmental conditions affecting human behaviours, in order to identify potential targets for drug discovery. Indeed, inappropriate response to others is a shared deficit in many mental disorders, such as schizophrenia and bipolar disorders.
Our work contributes to the mapping of the central brain neural substrate underlying basic (non-sexual and non-aggressive) response to another nearby fly. This work will be relevant not only to studies of Drosophila behaviour, but also to genetics of social behaviour in other organisms. Indeed, as for other behaviours initially dissected in Drosophila – learning and memory, circadian rhythm (Nobel Prize 2017 Physiology and Medicine) - the cellular and molecular basis of social behaviour might be conserved through evolution.
Finally, I deeply enjoy sharing my fascination for the complexity of the biological world with students of all levels. I think that teaching happens beyond the classroom, and in parallel to teaching in the classroom, I have been continuously mentoring undergraduate and graduate students in my research projects.