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The neurogenetics of innate behaviors

Wednesday, September 17, 2014


Leslie B. Vosshall, Ph.D.
Robin Chemers Neustein Professor
HHMI Investigator
HHMI-The Rockefeller University

Dr. Vosshall is a molecular neurobiologist with 30 years of experience as a biomedical researcher. The main focus of her laboratory is to understand the genetic basis of behavior, with particular emphasis on how organisms perceive and respond to external sensory stimuli and how these responses are modulated by the internal physiological state of the animal. Her early work concerned olfactory perception: Her lab discovered two large families of insect chemosensory receptors (ORs and IRs) and described general principles regarding their function, expression, and the connectivity of the sensory neurons that express them to primary processing centers in the brain. The Vosshall lab also investigates the molecular mechanisms underlying a diverse array of stereotyped innate behaviors–including the host-seeking behavior of mosquitoes, feeding and courtship behaviors of Drosophila, and the genetics and psychophysics of the perception of human smell.


Female mosquitoes require a blood meal to complete egg development. In carrying out this innate feeding behavior, mosquitoes spread dangerous infectious diseases such as malaria, dengue fever, and yellow fever. Humans attract mosquitoes via multiple sensory cues including emitted body odor, heat, and carbon dioxide in the breath. The mosquito perceives differences in these cues, both between and within species, to determine which animal or human to target for blood feeding. This strong attraction to humans is strongly attenuated for up to four days after the female takes a blood meal, suggesting the existence of a reversible blood-meal-induced behavioral switch. Dr. Vosshall and her lab have recently obtained evidence that neuropeptide signaling is an important factor in host-seeking suppression. They have identified human neuropeptide receptor agonists and antagonists that show dose-dependent modulation of host-seeking suppression, and have begun to link these drugs to endogenous Aedes aegypti neuropeptide receptors. She will discuss her group’s recent advances in analyzing the molecular biology of host-seeking behavior and its modulation by neuropeptides.

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