The Vosshall lab studies how complex behaviors are controlled by cues from the environment and modulated by internal physiological state. Working with Drosophila melanogaster flies, mosquitoes, and human subjects, Dr. Vosshall’s research has yielded new knowledge about how sensory 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 was to study how the brain interprets olfactory signals associated with food, danger, or potential mating partners. The group has been studying these problems in three model organisms: the fly, mosquito, and human. The majority of the early work in the lab used the genetically tractable vinegar fly, Drosophila melanogaster, to study the functional neuroanatomy of the olfactory system, the perception of 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 because it is uniquely expressed in nearly all olfactory neurons and is highly conserved across insect evolution. Dr. Vosshall’s lab has shown that Orco functions as a co-receptor, 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.
Beginning in 2008, the group established 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, body heat, and carbon dioxide — the gas exhaled in human breath — 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 egg 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 most recently 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, probe the basic perceptual logic of human smell, and develop novel diagnostic tests for patients suffering from olfactory dysfunction.