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Neural basis of reproductive behaviour for exploitation in pest control

Principal Supervisor: Dr Carolina Rezaval

Secondary Supervisor(s): TBC

University of Registration: University of Birmingham

BBSRC Research Themes: Sustainable Agriculture and Food (Plant and Crop Science)

No longer accepting applications

Project Outline

In many regions worldwide, insects pose a significant threat as pests. Mosquitoes and mosquito-borne diseases, such as malaria and dengue fever, continue to afflict communities across the globe. Meanwhile, invasive species like Drosophila suzukii cause billions in fruit production losses in Europe, including the UK.

Traditional pest control methods often fall short of achieving long-term solutions. In 'sterile insect technique' (SIT), male insects are mass-produced, sterilised, and subsequently released into the environment to mate with wild females. Such matings result in sterile offspring, reducing the pest population. However, the effectiveness of SIT largely depends on preventing females from mating again. Hence, unravelling how mating is triggered in the insect brain, and how it can be disrupted is crucial in the development of eco-friendly and economically viable pest control strategies.

The relative simplicity of the Drosophila melanogaster 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 reproductive behaviours. 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. Before deciding whether to engage in copulation, female flies assess a potential mate's species type and fitness. Yet it remains unclear how mate-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 mate. 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 will gain insight into how external sensory signals are integrated and processed in the brain to guide reproductive choices. These insights will pave the way for exploring novel strategies for insect control and interventions to combat insect-borne diseases.

More information

Feel free to explore our lab webpage, which features our research papers and a section highlighting our media coverage:


Neural circuitry underlying Drosophila female postmating behavioral responses. Rezával C, Pavlou HJ, Dornan AJ, Chan YB, Kravitz EA, Goodwin SF. Curr Biol. 2012 Jul 10;22(13):1155-65. doi: 10.1016/j.cub.2012.04.062. Epub 2012 May 31.

Sexually dimorphic octopaminergic neurons modulate female postmating behaviors in Drosophila. Rezával C, Nojima T, Neville MC, Lin AC, Goodwin SF. Curr Biol. 2014 Mar 31;24(7):725-30. doi: 10.1016/j.cub.2013.12.051. Epub 2014 Mar 13.

‘Neuronal modulation of D. melanogaster sexual behaviour’. Ellendersen BE, von Philipsborn AC. Curr Opin Insect Sci. 2017 Dec;24:21-28. doi: 10.1016/j.cois.2017.08.005. Epub 2017 Sep 14.

‘100 years of Drosophila research and its impact on vertebrate neuroscience: a history lesson for the future’. Bellen HJ1, Tong C, Tsuda H. Nat Rev Neurosci. 2010 Jul;11(7):514-22. doi: 10.1038/nrn2839.


The PhD student will use a range of cutting-edge techniques in neuroscience, including optogenetics, two-photon microscopy to measure neural activity in the brain of live animals, high-resolution automated behavioural assays, confocal microscopy, molecular biology (e.g., CRISPR) and genetics. To record neural activity in behaving flies, we will collaborate with research groups at the University of Oxford.