Marta Moita, Deputy Director of the Champalimaud Research Programme and group leader of the Behavioural Neuroscience lab at the Champalimaud Centre for the Unknown, in Lisbon – Portugal, was awarded a two million euros grant from the European Research Council (ERC) to advance her innovative work on the neural basis of defensive behaviours.
When Marta Moita received a Starting Grant from ERC five years ago, little was known about the variables and brain mechanisms that lead individuals to opt for a specific defensive strategy at any particular instance. In Moita’s opinion – which she has proven right, leading her now to receive a follow up ERC Consolidator Grant – an innovative approach was needed in order to gain new insight into this topic, which bears significance to all animals, including humans. The approach she took was to study this question in an organism that measures mere millimeters, the fruit fly.
“When we began the project of the ERC Starting Grant, we wanted to know whether the fruit fly can teach us how the brain chooses which of the three canonical defensive behaviours to apply when faced with a threat: escape, fight or freeze in place”, she recalls.
Why the fruit fly? To many of us it may seem as though these insects are too different from humans and other “higher” animals, but according to the results discovered by Moita’s group, fruit flies have more in common with us than we may think.
For one, in a study published earlier this year in the scientific journal Nature Communications, Moita and her team demonstrated that fruit flies don’t only try to escape from threats, (as many have thought), but in fact they flexibility choose which defensive strategy to apply depending on what they are doing at the time (they either escape or freeze in place depending on their walking speed the moment the threat appeared), and the team went even further and was also able to identify some of the specific neurons involved.
Moita explains that these insights were mainly possible because “with fruit flies we can explore these questions more in depth. Fruit flies are an excellent animal model that offers a high level of genetic and neural manipulations, which allow us to really ‘crack the neural circuits’ that underlie the fly’s behaviour.”
With these and other new novel findings, she will now turn to explore how additional variables, such as the social environment, influence the fly’s response to a threat. “This was again an uncharted field”, she points out, “but we have already gathered strong evidence showing that the fly’s response to a threat is strongly modulated by the response of its companions. Just like we would begin to escape if we would see a crowd of people running in panic, and remain calm if others seem serene even in uncertain situations, we found that the behaviour of the fly is also clearly modulated by the behaviour of other flies in its vicinity.”
In the next five years, Moita and her team will be focusing on understanding the contribution of the social and the spatial environment to the choice of defensive strategy and on identifying the brain circuits that process the relevant information and execute these decisions. “This project will provide a comprehensive understanding of the mechanism of freezing and its modulation by the environment, from single neurons to behaviour. We expect to find principles of organisation that can be generalised to other species, as were found in the olfactory and visual sensory systems of insects and mammals”, she concludes.
To pursue these goals, Moita will use the funds of the ERC grant to employ specialised research scientists, acquire new equipment for additional behavioural experiments, and tools for measuring of the activity of neurons in the brains of flies.
“This EU grant provides a real boost to research and innovation in Europe because it gives top scientists the chance to take risks and pursue their best and maybe wildest ideas” said Carlos Moedas, EU Commissioner for Research, Science and Innovation. “I am pleased to see these ERC grants will support such a diverse group of people of forty nationalities working in over twenty countries and that the list of grantees also reflects that we have many excellent women scientists in Europe.”
A Portuguese scientist working abroad and two host institutions in Portugal are also receiving ERC Consolidator grants. The latter are Laboratório Ibérico Internacional de Nanotecnologia and Universidade Nova de Lisboa.
Study mentioned above: https://www.nature.com/articles/s41467-018-05875-1