At first glance, it appears Pelin Volkan studies dancing flies. But what she is really getting at is how the neural circuits in our brains are shaped with development and modified by experience, and how this can change behavior.
Volkan uses fly olfaction (sense of smell) and courtship as a model to understand how environment drives epigenetic changes in gene expression (when genes are turned on or off) to modify courtship decisions.
One gene she is particularly interested in is called fruitless. Fruitless is necessary and sufficient to drive male courtship behaviors. In the absence of fruitless, males do not court at all if they are socially isolated. However, if grouped, they use olfaction to learn to court with flies around them, regardless of their sex.
Some of the questions her lab tries to answer are: 1) what are the epigenetic changes in gene expression that occur in the fly brain that helps males to reinitiate courtship? 2) what are the changes in neuronal function with social experience? 3) what are some structural changes in the neural circuits that drive courtship behaviors in different social environments?
What makes this study interesting is that it sheds light on how our environment can reprogram our brains and ultimately our behaviors.
If you’d like to learn more about Pelin Volkan’s lab, visit: https://sites.duke.edu/volkanlab/.
To learn more about the Duke Institute of Brain Sciences, visit: https://dibs.duke.edu/.
Video by Veronique Koch. Additional photos by Paco Romero-Ferrero, André Karwath and AfroBrazilian.