A flipped mental switch is all it takes to make a fly fall in love — even if its object of desire is a ball of wax. A technique called thermogenetics allows researchers to control fly behaviour by activating specific neurons with heat. Combining the system with techniques that use light to trigger neurons could help to elucidate how different neural circuits work together to control complex behaviours such as courtship.
Optogenetics — triggering neurons with light — has been successful in mice but has not been pursued much in flies, says Barry Dickson, a neuroscientist at the Howard Hughes Medical Institute's Janelia Farm Research Campus in Ashburn, Virginia. A fibre-optic cable embedded in a mouse’s brain can deliver light to cells genetically engineered to make light-activated proteins, but flies are too small for these fibre optics. Neither will these cells be activated when the flies are put into an illuminated box, because most wavelengths of visible light cannot penetrate a fly’s exoskeleton.
Heat can penetrate the exoskeleton, however. Researchers have already studied fly behaviour by adding a heat-activated protein called TRPA1 to neural circuits that control behaviours such as mating and decision-making. When these flies are placed in a hot box, the TRPA1 neurons begin to fire within minutes and drive the fly’s actions1.
But it would be better to trigger the behaviours more quickly. So Dickson’s lab has developed a system called the Fly Mind-Altering Device (FlyMAD), which uses a video camera to track the fly as it moves around in a box. The device then shines an infrared laser at the fly to deliver heat directly to the head. Dickson’s group presented the system last October at the Neurobiology of Drosophila conference at Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory in New York, and he is now submitting the work to a peer-reviewed journal.
As proof that the FlyMAD works, the group made flies with TRPA1 in a neural circuit involved in courtship. When the researchers activated the TRPA1 neurons with the laser, the fly began trying to mate with a ball of wax, circling it and 'singing' by vibrating its wings (see 'Laser love'). The fly continued courting for about fifteen minutes after the laser was shut off, suggesting that the heat had triggered a lasting, complex behavioural state. The researchers also made flies with TRPA1 in neurons involved in muscular coordination. Switching the laser on instantly made the flies walk backwards. They immediately stopped when it was switched off.