Heads of Laboratories
Leslie B. Vosshall, Ph.D.
Investigator, Howard Hughes Medical Institute
Robin Chemers Neustein Professor
Laboratory of Neurogenetics and Behavior
The overall goal of work in the Vosshall laboratory is to understand how complex behaviors are modulated by external chemosensory cues and internal physiological states. Working with Drosophila melanogaster flies, mosquitoes and human subjects, Dr. Vosshall’s research has yielded new knowledge about how odor stimuli are processed and perceived.
Dr. Vosshall’s lab takes a multidisciplinary approach spanning cell biology, genetics, neurobiology and behavior. The early focus of the lab has been to study how the brain interprets olfactory signals in the environment that signal food, danger or potential mating partners. The group has been studying these problems in three model organisms: the fly, the mosquito and the human. The majority of the early work in the laboratory was carried out in the genetically tractable vinegar fly, Drosophila melanogaster, which displays a rich repertoire of chemosensory behaviors despite having a nervous system with only 100,000 neurons. In this animal, the Vosshall lab studied the functional neuroanatomy of the olfactory system, how this system perceives sex pheromones and the structure and function of the insect odorant receptors.
The Vosshall lab identified the genes that mediate odor and carbon dioxide perception in insects. One member of the odorant gene family, Orco, is of particular interest to the Vosshall lab, as it is unique in being expressed in nearly all olfactory neurons and is highly conserved across insect evolution. Dr. Vosshall’s lab has shown that Orco functions as a coreceptor, working in tandem with odorant receptors in the dendrites of olfactory neurons, and has pinpointed this protein as a potential target for chemical inhibitors, which may help fight mosquito-transmitted infectious diseases.
The group has recently expanded its research focus to establish a mosquito genetics research program to understand host-seeking and blood-feeding behavior in the mosquito. The Vosshall lab studies the malaria mosquito (Anopheles gambiae) and the yellow fever mosquito (Aedes aegypti), which have both evolved an intense attraction to human body odor and carbon dioxide — the gas humans exhale — and thus serve as deadly vectors of infectious disease. Olfactory cues guide mosquitoes toward humans, from which the mosquitoes derive the blood they need to complete ovarian development. To shed new light on mosquito olfaction and host-seeking behavior, the Vosshall lab has developed genome editing techniques for targeted mutagenesis in A. aegypti using zinc-finger nucleases, TALENs and the CRISPR/Cas9 system. The establishment of loss-of-function genetics in mosquitoes has opened up new paths of investigation in vector biology, including the neurobiology of host seeking.
Another broad area of interest is olfactory perception in humans. The Rockefeller University Smell Study, directed by research associate Andreas Keller, has been carrying out large-scale research on human subjects to combine olfactory psychophysics with genetic analysis in order to understand the mechanisms of olfactory perception in humans. Recent work has challenged the assumption that humans have a comparatively poor sense of smell compared to animals and led to the finding that the human nose has the power to discriminate between a very large number of olfactory stimuli. Ongoing work aims to link variation in olfactory perception to genetic polymorphisms, to probe the basic perceptual logic of human smell and to develop clinical interventions for patients suffering from olfactory dysfunction.
Dr. Vosshall received her undergraduate degree in biochemistry from Columbia University in 1987 and her Ph.D. from The Rockefeller University in 1993. She conducted her postdoctoral training with Richard Axel at Columbia from 1993 to 2000, when she returned to Rockefeller as assistant professor. She was promoted to associate professor in 2006 and was made the Robin Chemers Neustein Professor in 2010. She was appointed a Howard Hughes Medical Institute investigator in 2008.
Dr. Vosshall received a Gill Young Investigator Award in 2011, a Dart/NYU biotech award in 2010, a Lawrence C. Katz Prize from Duke University in 2009 and a Blavatnik Award for Young Scientists in 2007. In 2005 she received the New York City Mayor’s Award for Excellence in Science and Technology and the Irma T. Hirschl/Monique Weill-Caulier Trusts Research Award. In 2002 she received the Presidential Early Career Award for Scientists and Engineers and was named a John Merck Fund Scholar. She was named an Arnold and Mabel Beckman Foundation Young Investigator in 2001, when she also received a National Science Foundation Faculty Early Career Development Award and a McKnight Scholar Award in Neuroscience.
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