Genes and Behavior
Studying genetic mutants has taught us so much about the genetic regulation of behavior, but many of these mutations do not exist in nature and are therefore unlikely to be relevant for evolution. Our research group instead focuses on linking natural genetic variation to behavioral variation, in an effort to understand the evolutionary underpinnings of behavior. We ask questions like: what kind of genes are under selection to confer successful behavior, how do individual- and group-level behavioral phenotypes interact, and what do these relationships mean in the environmental context of the organisms?
We use the 1-mm long roundworm C. elegans and other related nematode species to address these questions. Nematodes are the most abundant animals on the planet, and they exhibit a diverse range of collective behavior such as aggregation, swarming, towering, and network formation. These behaviors are not only visually striking but also seemingly purposeful, so they represent potential products of evolution. We are interested in exploring how the behaviors vary across genetically diverse nematode strains at both the individual and the group level to identify key genetic regulators of behavior. We study nematode behavior in both the laboratory and semi-natural environments, to strike the fine balance between well-controlled experimental conditions and pertinent natural contexts in which the behaviors may have evolved.
At the heart of our approach lies quantitative behavior and computational ethology methods. We design high-throughput behavioral assays to reveal variations across worm strains; we engineer state-of-the-art imaging systems to capture useful behavior; we develop automated worm tracking and high-dimensional feature extraction algorithms to quantify behavioral differences; and we model complex systems to link individual and collective behavior.
We nurture a highly interdisciplinary and collaborative team environment to achieve our scientific goals, and welcome new group members and collaborators from diverse research backgrounds and career stages. Please contact Serena if you are interested in working with us!