Heads of Laboratories
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 their previous experiences. These learned and adaptive behaviors are mediated by plastic neural circuits that emerge rapidly, within the lifetime of an individual. The Ruta lab is interested in delineating the neural circuits that underlie innate behaviors, in learning what computations these circuits perform to extract and interpret sensory information and guide behavior, and in discovering how these circuits are ultimately modified by learning to reflect prior individual experience.
Although all animals use learning and memory mechanisms to adapt and refine their behavioral responses, the Ruta lab studies 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 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 neural processing pathways, Dr. Ruta hopes to reveal conserved neural mechanisms that translate sensation into action.
An initial focus of the Ruta lab is to examine the neural circuits that underlie male courtship behavior in Drosophila. Although the capacity to perform this elaborate ritual is entirely innate, the decision of whom to court is a product of both instinct and learning. A male fly formulates this decision on the basis of both multimodal sensory cues that emanate from a female fly, as well as from his prior sexual experience. Therefore male courtship can serve as a valuable paradigm to examine how experience-dependent modulation of a behavioral circuit occurs. 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 as well as 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 halt 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 postdoctoral research in Richard Axel’s laboratory at Columbia University and joined Rockefeller as assistant professor in 2011. Dr. Ruta was named a Pew Scholar and a McKnight Scholar in 2012; she also received a Sinsheimer Scholarship in 2012. 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.
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