Behaviors are complex traits influenced by many interacting genes and sensitive to the environment. My research focuses on understanding the genetic basis of behavior by combining behavioral genetic, molecular genetic and genomic approaches. In particular, my research centers on the following critical questions:
-- What are the genes that shape the behavior?
-- How do ensembles of genes act together to give rise to the behavioral phenotype?
-- To what extent do polymorphisms in these genes account for phenotypic variation in natural populations?
To address these questions we study chemosensory behavior, particularly olfactory behavior, in Drosophila melanogaster and in the desert dwelling drosophilid, Drosophila mojavensis.
Drosophila melanogaster is an excellent model system for examining the genetic architecture of chemosensory behavior as it is readily amenable to genetic, neuroanatomical and behavioral analyses. Currently, we have been using a combination of behavioral, molecular genetic and genomic approaches to: (1) identify novel genes that mediate chemosensory behavior, (2) examine the relationship between chemosensory behavior and life history traits, such as longevity and starvation resistance, and (3) investigate the nature and pattern of molecular polymorphisms in olfactory receptor genes that contribute to variation in behavioral responses in nature. The ability to integrate these approaches in this system provides us with exciting opportunities to gain new insights into the genetic architecture and evolution of behavior.
We are also interested in the proximate mechanisms underlying divergence of behavior as a result of local adaptation to different environments. Here, we examine olfaction in the cactophilic fly, D. mojavensis, a model of incipient speciation. D. mojavensis feeds and breeds on different cacti across the southwestern United States and Mexico. Our work focuses on understanding the genetic and neural factors underlying phenotypic divergence in this system. More specifically, we examine variation in the olfaction system and in behavior that accompany adaptation to different ecological environments.