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Heads of Laboratories

Head shot of Vanessa Ruta
Vanessa Ruta, Ph.D.
Gabrielle H. Reem and Herbert J. Kayden Assistant Professor
Laboratory of Neurophysiology and Behavior

Animal behavior reflects the interplay of two types of responses: those that arise innately, from neural circuits pre-programmed into the genome, and those acquired by learning from past experience. Using the fruit fly Drosophila melanogaster, Dr. Ruta works to define the neural circuit mechanisms that generate innate and learned behaviors.

All animals exhibit stereotyped behavioral responses to certain sensory cues. These innate behaviors reflect the activation of genetically determined neural circuits selected over the course of evolution to ensure robust responses to sensory stimuli critical to survival and reproduction. However, to flexibly adapt to a dynamic and often unpredictable sensory environment, animals must also learn to modify innate behavioral responses based on prior experience. These learned behaviors are mediated by neural circuits that adapt much more rapidly, within an individual lifetime, to allow each animal to appropriately respond to its unique sensory experiences. The Ruta lab is interested in delineating the distinct neural circuits and computations that underlie innate and learned behaviors, and in revealing circuits that can be modified through evolution or individual experience to generate novel behavioral adaptations.

The Ruta lab examines circuit organization, function, evolution, and plasticity in the fruit fly, Drosophila melanogaster, an animal that displays a rich repertoire of innate and learned behaviors governed by a brain of only approximately 100,000 neurons. A goal of the lab is to exploit the numerical simplicity of the fly’s nervous system to trace neural circuits from the detection of sensory cues all the way through to implementation of a motor response. By characterizing these extended neural-processing pathways, Dr. Ruta hopes to reveal conserved circuit mechanisms that translate sensation into action. Areas of current focus include revealing the stereotyped pheromone-responsive circuits that enable a male to choose an appropriate prospective mate and the flexible circuits that allow a fly to impart meaning and contextualize a rich array of other olfactory experiences. Dr. Ruta and her colleagues use a variety of technical approaches to reveal and probe neural circuits, including novel optical tracing techniques, intracellular and extracellular electrophysiological recordings, and functional calcium imaging. These anatomic and functional methods are combined with quantitative behavioral assays in both free and tethered animals to allow for simultaneous measurement of neural activity and behavioral output.

Dr. Ruta is also interested in considering how sensation is converted to action at the molecular level. All olfactory behaviors in the fly, whether innate or learned, are initiated through the same molecular recognition events: the binding of volatile chemical cues to odorant receptors expressed in peripheral sensory neurons. Odorant receptors in insects, unlike in mammals, are thought to function as heteromeric ion channels. To begin to reveal the mechanism that couples the binding of odorant ligands to ion flux in this large and diverse family of membrane proteins, the Ruta lab is performing biochemical, electrophysiological, and structural studies on insect odorant receptors. The aim is to provide insight into the mechanism of odorant signaling in insects and to lay the foundation for the development of novel strategies to prevent the transmission of insect-borne diseases.


B.A. in chemistry, 2000
Hunter College of the City University of New York

Ph.D., 2005
The Rockefeller University


Columbia University, 2005–2010


Associate Research Scientist, 2010–2011
Columbia University

Assistant Professor, 2011–
The Rockefeller University


New York Stem Cell Foundation–Robertson Neuroscience Investigator, 2012

Pew Biomedical Scholar, 2012

McKnight Scholar, 2012

Sinsheimer Fund Scholar, 2012

Irma T. Hirschl/Monique Weill-Caulier Trust Research Award, 2013

Alfred P. Sloan Research Fellowship, 2013

National Institutes of Health Director’s New Innovator Award, 2013


Caron, S.J. et al. Random convergence of olfactory inputs in the Drosophila mushroom body. Nature 497, 113–117 (2013).

Ruta, V. et al. A dimorphic pheromone circuit in Drosophila from sensory input to descending output. Nature 468, 686–690 (2010).

Datta, S.R. et al. The Drosophila pheromone cVA activates a sexually dimorphic neural circuit. Nature 452, 473–477 (2008).

Ruta, V. et al. Calibrated measurement of gating-charge arginine displacement in the KvAP voltage-dependent K+ channel. Cell 123, 463–475 (2005).

Ruta, V. et al. Functional analysis of an archaebacterial voltage-dependent K+ channel. Nature 422, 180–185 (2003).

Dr. Ruta is a faculty member in the David Rockefeller Graduate Program, the Tri-Institutional M.D.-Ph.D. Program, and the Tri-Institutional Ph.D. Program in Chemical Biology.