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Heads of Laboratories

Vanessa Ruta, Ph.D.

Gabrielle H. Reem and Herbert J. Kayden Assistant Professor
Laboratory of Neurophysiology and Behavior

Lab Members Publications In the News

Faculty Bio

Vanessa Ruta

Animal behavior reflects the interplay of instinct and learning. The Ruta lab is interested in defining the functional architecture and algorithms of the innate and adaptive neural circuits that animals use to navigate their sensory world. 

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 the lifetime of an individual, 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 questions of 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 freely performing flies and tethered animals to allow for simultaneous measurement of neural activity and associated 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 in the environment 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 of these studies is to provide insight into the molecular 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.


Dr. Ruta received her B.A. in chemistry from Hunter College and her Ph.D. from The Rockefeller University in 2005, where she was a member of Roderick MacKinnon’s laboratory. She conducted post- doctoral research in Richard Axel’s laboratory at Columbia University and joined Rockefeller as assistant professor in 2011. She was named Gabrielle H. Reem and Herbert J. Kayden Assistant Professor in 2013.

Dr. Ruta was named a New York Stem Cell Foundation–Robertson Neuroscience Investigator, a Pew Scholar in Biomedical Science, a McKnight Neuroscience Scholar, and a Sinsheimer Foundation Scholar in 2012 and an Irma T. Hirschl/Monique Weill-Caulier Trusts Research Awardee and an Alfred P. Sloan Research Scholar in 2013. Dr. Ruta was also the recipient of a 2013 NIH Director’s New Innovator Award. She received a Helen Hay Whitney Postdoctoral Fellowship in 2007, the Harold M. Weintraub Graduate Student Award in 2005 and a David Rockefeller Fellowship in 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.


Caron, S., Ruta, V.  Abbott, L.F. and R. Axel,  Random convergence of olfactory inputs in the Drosophila mushroom body.  Nature 2013 497: 113-117.

Ruta, V., Datta S.R., Vasconcelos, M.L., Freidland, J.F., Looger, L.L. and R. Axel, A dimorphic pheromone circuit in Drosophila from sensory input to descending output. Nature 2010 468:686-690.

Datta S.R., Vasconcelos, M.L., Ruta, V., Luo, S., Wong, A. Demir, E., Flores, J. Balonze, K., Dickson B.J. and R. Axel , The Drosophila pheromone cVA activates a sexually dimorphic neural circuit. Nature. 2008 452:473-7.

Ruta, V., Chen. J., and R. MacKinnon, Calibrated measurement of gating-charge arginine displacement in the KvAP voltage-dependent K+ channel. Cell. 2005 123:463-75.

Ruta, V., and R. MacKinnon, Localization of the voltage-sensor toxin receptor on KvAP. Biochemistry. 2004 43:10071-9.

Jiang, Y., Ruta, V., Chen. J, Lee, A and R MacKinnon, The principle of gating charge movement in a voltage-dependent K+ channel. Nature. 2003 423:42-8.

Jiang, Y., Lee, A., Chen. J., Ruta, V., Cadine, M., Chait, B. and R. MacKinnon, X-ray structure of a voltage-dependent K+ channel. Nature. 2003 423:33-41.

Ruta, V., Jiang, Y., Lee, A., Chen, J., and R. MacKinnon, Functional analysis of an archaebacterial voltage-dependent K+ channel. Nature. 2003 422:180-5. 

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