The overall goal of our research is to understand how the nervous system detects, encodes, and transmits sensory information underlying social behaviors, such as finding a mate, avoiding unfavorable conditions or parenting and bonding. To address this, we study the neuronal, genetic, and molecular mechanisms underlying chemically-mediated social behaviors in the nematode, C. elegans. This model system has a relatively simple nervous system with a fully-mapped connectome, and affords the use of many imaging techniques. This, in conjunction with its social-behavioral repertoire, renders C. elegans as an ideal model for addressing our research questions.
The specific goals of our research are to understand how neurons interpret social signals, both individually and as members of circuits, to produce specific behaviors in C. elegans. To achieve this, we utilize a class of small social molecules produced by the animals, termed ascarosides. We investigate C. elegans responses to these signals at the molecular level by identifying the genes and signaling pathways underlying observed social behaviors. Additionally, we seek to understand the mechanisms by which social and environmental experiences affect innate social behaviors. Given the degree of neuronal pathway conservation between C. elegans and vertebrates, understanding how social recognition occurs in the worm nervous system can provide insights into how vertebrate neural systems encode social information.
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Currently the lab is funded by WPI and NIH