Behavioural genetics of learning and memory faces a dilemma: On the one hand, small and simple animals are best suited for genetics. On the other hand, memory and behaviour in complex and large animals, including humans, is most interesting:
The genetic blueprint enables and constrains how organisms develop and thus what they and what their offspring can become. The experimental study of genetics requires observing the changes that ensue when that blueprint is altered. As these alterations (i.e. mutations) are rare, the ability to observe large numbers of organisms is a prerequisite for genetic analyses. Practically, this is the easier the smaller the organism is, and consequentially the favoured cases studied in genetics are viruses, bacteria, and yeast - and given the common evolutionary history with humans such genetic research has immediate relevance for our lives.
The behavioural sciences, in contrast, focus on humans, rats, and pigeons and the fascinating richness in what they can do, learn, and remember.
We believe that Drosophila fruit flies, and their larvae, offer a fortunate compromise in that they are small and simple enough to be tractable by genetics yet sufficiently complex in their behaviour to remain interesting. Indeed, research in these flies uncovered fundamental mechanisms - shared with humans - of for example how nerve cells grow and develop, how learning and memory comes about, and how the circadian clocks of animals are organized. Although our department is focussed on Drosophila, we pursue intense collaborative research in rodents and man.