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To eat or to mate? Neural basis of behavioural choices in fruit flies

Principal Supervisor: Dr Carolina Rezaval, Department of Physiology, Anatomy and Genetics, University of Oxford

Co-supervisor: Dr Alicia Hidalgo, School of Biosciences

PhD project title: To eat or to mate? Neural basis of behavioural choices in fruit flies

University of Registration: University of Birmingham

Project outline:

Animals engage in daily activities that are essential for survival and reproduction, such as feeding, mating or fighting for resources. How does an animal prioritise one behaviour over others? We know that cues conveying external information (e.g., threats from other animals, access to food) and internal state (e.g., fear, hunger) guide behavioural choices. However, exactly how action selection occurs in the brain remains unknown.

This research proposal aims to address this fascinating question using the fruit fly model, Drosophila melanogaster. Fruit flies exhibit complex behaviours that are controlled by a relatively small brain. Furthermore, sophisticated genetic tools are available which facilitate the control of individual neurons with temporal resolution, enabling us to probe the circuitry underlying behaviour. Using Drosophila as a model system provides a unique opportunity to address fundamental aspects of action selection: how does the brain integrate information from the outside world and internal state to select the most appropriate action for each situation? What neurons and mechanisms underlie these behavioural decisions?

Courtship is crucial for sexual reproduction and one of the most robust and sophisticated behaviours in the animal kingdom. During courtship, male flies engage in an array of innate behaviours that include following the female, tapping her with his forelegs, vibrating a wing to produce a species-specific courtship song and bending his abdomen to copulate [1, 2]. Although courtship constitutes a critical function of the animal and it is a hard-wired response, it must be weighed against internal needs (e.g., hunger state). How does the fly decide between mating and feeding?

This project aims to identify the neurons and mechanisms that modify courtship in response to the nutritional state of the fly. By combining cutting-edge techniques, we will investigate how the nutritional state of the animal is relayed into the brain, and how this information is integrated into courtship circuits to modulate reproductive behaviours. This involves identifying relevant neurons underlying these processes, and describing how they are organised into functional circuits.

To address these questions, the PhD student will use a range of cutting-edge techniques: genetics, in vivo confocal microscopy, optogenetics, molecular biology, functional imaging, and behavioural assays.

How the brain selects appropriate actions is a fascinating question that remains unknown. This research provides a unique opportunity to study action selection with unparalleled resolution in an eminently tractable experimental system, and uncover universal principles underpinning behaviour.

Details of Dr. Rezaval's previous work at the University of Oxford (Centre for Neural Circuits & Behaviour) can be found at:


  • Pavlou, H.J., and Goodwin, S.F. (2013). Courtship behavior in Drosophila melanogaster: towards a 'courtship connectome'. Curr Opin Neurobiol 23, 76-83.
  • Auer, T.O., and Benton, R. (2016). Sexual circuitry in Drosophila. Curr Opin Neurobiol 38, 18-26.

BBSRC Strategic Research Priority: Molecules, Cells and Systems

Techniques that will be undertaken during the project:

This research will take advantage of the large repertoire of genetic tools available in Drosophila to track neural circuits and test their involvement in action selection. The PhD student will use a range of cutting-edge techniques:

  • Genetics
  • In vivo confocal microscopy
  • optogenetics
  • molecular biology
  • Functional imaging
  • High resolution behavioural assays

Contact: Dr Carolina Rezaval, Department of Physiology, Anatomy and Genetics, University of Oxford