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Reverse-Engineering the Fruit Fly's Visual Flight Control System

Dr. Michael Reiser
Howard Hughes Medical Institute, Janelia Farm Research Campus

November 14, 2008
Lally 104, 4:00 p.m. to 5:00 p.m.
Refreshments at 3:30 p.m.


Flying insects exhibit stunning behavioral repertoires that are largely m mediated by the visual control of flight. For this reason, presenting a controlled visual environment to tethered insects continues to be a powerful tool for studying the sensory control of complex behaviors. I will present results from experiments on tethered flies surrounded by a panoramic visual stimulus system that simulates spatio-temporal patterns that would be seen by a fly undergoing translatory and rotatory motion in flight. By measuring the turning responses of flies in real-time, it is possible to close a feedback loop around the animal, enabling the flies to control the visual stimulus. During closed-loop tethered flight, Drosophila robustly orient away from the focus of expansion of a simulated forward flight optic flow field. This observation was perplexing--how then do flies fly forward? The paradox has been largely resolved by several significant findings that I will present. Computational models of Drosophila's visual system are used to demonstrate that the experimental results arrived at by doing psychophysics on tethered animals actually yield sensible navigation strategies. I will also discuss recent technological developments that will enable a thorough reverse-engineering of the fly nervous system. The goal of many scientists, and in particular of my colleagues at the Janelia Farm research campus, is to identify general principles that govern the processing of information by neuronal circuits. Serious challenges lie ahead, but this effort is greatly aided by advances in computational, molecular, genetic, cellular electrophysiology, and imaging technology.


Michael Reiser is a Fellow at the Howard Hughes Medical Institute's Janelia Farm Research Campus. His laboratory develops new technologies for studying fly behavior and neurobiology and is focused on uncovering novel mechanisms of sensory processing in Drosophila. He received B.S. degrees in Electrical Engineering and Computer Engineering from the University of Florida, an M.S. in Electrical Engineering from the University of California at Berkeley, and a Ph.D. in Computation and Neural Systems from the California Institute of Technology. He received best student paper awards for work presented at the International Workshop on Biologically-Inspired Robotics in 2002 and at the American Controls Conference in 2004. Dr. Reiser has also worked as an applications engineer at Intel Corp. and a software engineer at Citrix Systems.

Hosted by: Dr. Jeffrey Trinkle (x8291)

Last updated: October 30, 2008