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Casanova or caveman: Scientists isolate nerve cells that choreograph male fly's courtship behavior

When a male fruit fly encounters a prospective mate, he initiates courtship by following her around and gently tapping her with his leg. If she seems interested, he serenades her with a love song. Singing is followed by more intimate acts that sometimes lead to successful mating.

Now Stanford University scientists have discovered that this elaborate courtship behavior is actually choreographed by a cluster of nerve cells embedded in the central nervous system of the male fly. When these cells fail to function properly, the courtship ritual breaks down and the male is transformed from a suave Casanova into a clumsy brute that tries to force himself on unwilling females.

These findings, published in the July 29 edition of the journal Nature, may eventually help scientists understand how the brain orchestrates sexual behavior in a variety of species - from flies to reptiles to humans, according to the researchers.

"The fruit fly is a model organism whose basic cellular functions are very similar to what they are in people," said Bruce S. Baker, the Dr. Morris Herzstein Professor in Biology at Stanford and co-author of the Nature study. "It wouldn't surprise me to learn that human sexual behaviors also have underneath them a basic circuitry in the nervous system that mediates attraction and mating."

Casanova to caveman

In the Nature study, Baker and Stanford graduate student Devanand S. Manoli focused on a gene known as fruitless - one of approximately 13,000 genes in the DNA of the common fruit fly, Drosophila melanogaster.

Baker and several colleagues had previously discovered that fruitless was the master gene that controlled sexual behavior in male flies. "We found that the fruitless gene was responsible for building the neuronal circuitry for male courtship," Baker said. "This circuit, which is built into the fly's brain and ventral nerve cord, is comprised of about 1,500 neurons - roughly one
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28-Jul-2004


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