Card and her colleagues wanted to understand how flies decide when to sacrifice stability in favor of a quicker response. To learn more, Catherine von Reyn, a postdoctoral researcher in Card's lab, set up experiments in which she could directly monitor activity in the giant fiber neurons. Surprisingly, she discovered that the giant fibers were not only active in short-mode escape, but also during some of the long-mode escapes. The situation was more complicated than their genetic experiments had suggested. "Seeing the dynamics of the electrophysiology allowed us to understand that the timing of the spike is important is determining the fly's choice of escape behavior," Card says.
Based on their data, Card and von Reyn propose that a looming stimulus first activates a circuit in the brain that initiates a slow escape, beginning with a controlled lift of the wings. When the object looms closer, filling more of the fly's field of view, the giant fiber activates, prompting a more urgent escape. "What determines whether a fly does a long-mode or a short-mode escape is how soon after the wings go up the fly kicks its legs and it starts to take off," Card says. "The giant fiber can fire at any point during that sequence. It might not fire at all in which case you get this nice long, beautifully choreographed takeoff. It might fire right away, in which case you get an abbreviated escape." The more quickly an object approaches, the sooner the giant fiber is likely to fire, increasing the probability of a short escape.
Card remains curious about many aspects of escape behavior. How does a fly calculate the orientation of a threat and decide in which direction to flee, she w
|Contact: Jim Keeley|
Howard Hughes Medical Institute