What are you doing for Valentine’s Day? Does it involve being loaded into a cartridge with a member of the opposite sex, then put in a soundproof chamber, where lights will flash and your romance will be recorded by a tiny individual microphone?
For the fruit flies in Yun Ding’s lab, Valentine’s Day is just another day in paradise. Ding studies their courtship process to learn more about how the genes and brains evolve to change their behaviors.
The vast diversity in how living things behave comes about through genes and nervous systems evolving to encode new behavioral patterns, Ding says, but we really don’t know much about how this works. Fruit flies are a great way to study this because one species, Drosophila melanogaster, has been a genetic model for over 100 years, and scientists have learned a lot about how its genes and neurons influence behaviors. There are about 1,500 described species of fruit fly, each with species-specific behaviors, which lets Ding make comparisons between species.
“One approach is to study at the genetic level, to see what the genetic differences are that call the animals to sing different songs,” she says. “If we can identify mutations, what kind of mutations are they? What kind of genes are involved? On top of that, if you see a very similar change in a different evolutionary node, would they involve the similar genes or the similar mutations?”