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Research in the Garrity Lab

We study sensory detection and behavior in flies and mosquitoes

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We study the molecules, cells and circuits that drive sensation. We focus on how animals (especially flies and vector mosquitoes) detect temperature, humidity and chemicals, and how this detection modulates their behavior and physiology.

Biological sensors of temperature, humidity and chemicals are remarkable devices that can respond to relatively small changes in stimulus intensity with dramatic changes in activity. For example, the thermosensors we study can detect temperature fluctuations as small as a few millidegrees per second. To put this sensitivity in perspective, it is useful to remember that temperature reflects the average molecular motion of matter. As the temperatures of biological systems are ~300K, such thermosensors function as molecular speedometers (or, in some cases, accelerometers), that somehow respond to relative changes in average motion on the order of 1 in 10,000.

Remarkably, the molecular mechanisms by which these sensors act remain largely unknown.  A major goal in our lab is to combine behavior, molecular biology, genetics, cell biology, electrophysiology, ion channel biophysics and evolutionary analysis to understand how these sensors operate, how they evolve, and how the animal processes the input they provide to drive physiology and behavior.

Practically, our work involves studying the function, regulation and evolution of thermal and chemical detectors and their affiliated neural circuits in molecular, cellular and biophysical detail. Work from our lab has found that three classes of receptors (Transient Receptor Potential (TRP) channels, variant Ionotropic Glutamate Receptors (IRs) and Gustatory Receptors (GRs)) operate as detectors of temperature and moisture (humidity) in insects.  Our current work focuses on three topics. First, we are interested in understanding the molecular mechanisms through which these receptors detect sensory cues. Second, we are investigating the mechanisms through which the circuits these receptors modulate alter behavior and physiology, a pursuit aided by recent advances in connectomics and strategies for manipulating single neurons in intact animals. Finally, we are investigating how these sensory modalities contribute to host-seeking and oviposition (egg laying) by vector mosquitoes.

From a human health perspective, the detection of temperature, humidity and chemicals is critical for host-seeking by blood-feeding mosquitoes that spread malaria, dengue, Zika virus, chikungunya and other diseases. Understanding the receptors that mediate host-seeking will be an important step toward new vector control approaches. In addition, some of the detectors we study have close human orthologs that control pain and inflammation. Understanding more about how these receptors operate can provide important insights for controlling these important sources of human misery.

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