Genes and Behavior

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 if you are interested in working with us!

A flavor for some of our current and future projects:

Natural variation in the Caenorhabditis genus

To map genetic variation to behavioral variation, we need to capture useful behavior across a large number of genetically diverse strains. We now have a collection of thousands of fully sequenced and georeferenced nematode strains sampled from natural environments all over the world. This offers an excellent opportunity to discover natural genetic variants that modify behavior, and lends itself to further mechanistic dissection in a highly tractable genetic model organism. The expanding strain collection spans across the Caenorhabditis genus, thus also providing the phylogenetic context to uncover the evolutionary origin of these variations.

Group composition and collective behavior

We recently discovered that three interaction rules between individual worms give rise to contrasting aggregation behavior between two C. elegans strains. Most wild C. elegans strains aggregate, but with varying collective phenotypes. So how do these interactions differ amongst the strains? This natural behavioral variation also provides raw material for designing heterogeneous mixtures of worm groups, to test how changing group composition affects the interactions and the collective phenomenon.

Novel collective behavior

Aggregation is the best-studied nematode collective behavior to date, providing a prime example for how we can link genes, neuronal circuits, individual behavior, and collective behavior within one experimental system. Recently several other striking behaviors have been described in nematodes, such as wave-like swarming, network formation, and collective nictation (dauer tower). These novel collective behaviors hold exciting promises for further characterisation using integrated experimental and theoretical approaches.

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