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 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.
In a series of psychophysical studies, the Vosshall lab has been the first to reveal that genetic variations in a single odorant receptor called OR7D4 determines individual differences in humans’ perception of two odorous steroids produced in human sweat, androstenone and androstadienone. To better understand the social implications of the finding, Dr. Vosshall has initiated a series of studies to disentangle whether women’s perception of and sensitivity to androstadienone corresponds with their bodies’ physiological responses to it.
In addition to humans and flies, 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. In the yellow fever and dengue vector mosquito, Aedes aegypti, host seeking is suppressed or inhibited for about 72 hours after the mosquito takes a blood meal. The molecular basis for how host-seeking behavior is regulated is unknown but may be explained by a humoral control mechanism in which the sensitivity of the olfactory system is altered following blood feeding. The Vosshall lab is examining the hypothesis that regulation of specific olfactory and neurohumoral genes modifies the host-seeking behavior of female Aedes aegypti after blood feeding.
To shed new light on mosquito olfaction and host-seeking behavior, the Vosshall lab has developed a technique for targeted mutagenesis in Aedes aegypti using zinc-finger nucleases. The establishment of loss-of-function genetics in mosquitoes opens new paths of investigation in vector biology, including the neurobiology of host seeking.
Finally, the Vosshall lab is studying the genetic basis of host preference in the mosquito. Outside of Africa, populations of Aedes aegypti specialize in humans. They are strongly attracted to human scent, they thrive on human blood, and they breed in artificial containers in human-disturbed habitats — often even in water stored inside people’s homes. Within Africa, however, many Aedes aegypti populations appear to be generalized. They are not particularly attracted to humans, they feed on a wide variety of animals, and they breed in tree holes in natural habitats. Previous work has shown that these two ecologically divergent forms of the mosquito coexist in several places along the coast of East Africa — one breeding in villages and the other breeding in surrounding forests. They appear to be maintaining ecological differences despite their close proximity. The Vosshall lab aims to identify the genetic basis of ecological differentiation between the two forms and to describe the evolutionary processes by which this differentiation is maintained.
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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