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Neural basis underlying mating decisions in fruit flies

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

Co-supervisor: Dr. Matthias Soller, School of Biosciences

PhD project title: Neural basis underlying mating decisions in fruit flies

University of Registration: University of Birmingham

Project outline:

Mate choice is an essential behavioural process with profound consequences in evolution. How do animals choose with whom to mate? How do they evaluate the features of a potential mate to maximise their reproductive success?

The relative simplicity of the fruit fly brain, along with the genetic tools available to identify and manipulate individual neurons and assess the effects on behaviour, provide an excellent opportunity to uncover fundamental principles underlying mating decisions [1-3]. To choose their partners, Drosophila fruit flies engage in a sophisticated courtship ritual, which involves a series of hard-wired or genetically programmed behaviours that culminate in copulation. Male flies court females displaying stereotyped behaviours that include vibrating a wing to produce a species-specific courtship song. Females never actively court males, but it is their response to the male's display which ultimately determines whether mating will occur. It is believed that females evaluate a potential mate for species type and fitness before deciding whether to copulate or not. We do not yet know how courtship-related information is integrated in the female brain to either reject or accept the male, nor how mating decisions are in fact executed.

This project aims to identify neurons and neuropeptides involved in female sexual receptivity and acceptance behaviours in Drosophila, and thus contribute to the understanding of the neural processes that are responsible for the decision to copulate. By taking advantage of a wide range of cutting edge techniques, including genetics, in vivo confocal microscopy, functional imaging, optogenetics and behavioural assays, we will study mate selection in detail: from behaviour to circuits,

to neurons and genes. As a result, we hope to gain insight into how external sensory signals are integrated and processed in the brain to guide reproductive choices.

Discoveries in fruit flies have greatly contributed to neuroscience. This research project offers a unique opportunity to study how the brain makes decisions that are essential for reproductive success, and uncover neural mechanisms that might be present across species.

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


  • Rezaval, C., Nojima, T., Neville, M.C., Lin, A.C., and Goodwin, S.F. (2014). Sexually dimorphic octopaminergic neurons modulate female postmating behaviours in Drosophila. Curr Biol 24, 725-730.
  • Rezaval, C., Pavlou, H.J., Dornan, A.J., Chan, Y.B., Kravitz, E.A., and Goodwin, S.F. (2012). Neural circuitry underlying Drosophila female postmating behavioral responses. Curr Biol 22, 1155-1165.
  • Pavlou, H.J., and Goodwin, S.F. (2013). Courtship behavior in Drosophila melanogaster: towards a 'courtship connectome'. Curr Opin Neurobiol 23, 76-83.

BBSRC Strategic Research Priority: Food Security

Techniques that will be undertaken during the project:

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

  • 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