The National Latsis Prize 2015 has been awarded to biologist Richard Benton for his work on the fruit fly's sense of smell. Using an interdisciplinary approach he studies how chemical signals control the behaviour of insects. How odours influence actions is one of the fundamental questions in neuroscience. Richard Benton, associate professor at the Center for Integrative Genomics at the University of Lausanne, follows the molecular trail of chemical messages from the nose to the brain of insects. For his work, the Swiss National Science Foundation (SNSF) on behalf of the International Latsis Foundation awards Benton with the National Latsis Prize 2015.
Similarities to humans
“Although the fruit fly’s nose is simpler than our own, odour perception in insects is strikingly similar to how humans detect smells,” Benton explains. “It becomes apparent when you look at how their neural circuits are organised and respond to odours.” What we learn from the fruit fly can therefore help us better understand neural circuits in more complex brains.
One particular interest of Benton’s group is to define how pheromones are detected. Insects – like most animals – use chemical signals to attract mates, to mark their paths or their territory, and to signal danger. The British researcher investigates the molecular pathways for pheromone sensing to explain how these vital chemical messages in minute quantities are detected and how they specifically trigger the correct behavioural response.
Benton is also interested in understanding how nervous systems evolve, over thousands of generations, to adapt an animal’s behaviour to its environment. Some species of flies, for example, feed only on specific fruits. This specialisation is accompanied by changes in their smell receptor genes and the wiring of neurons in the brain. Understanding the genetic changes that underlie the tweaking of the structure and function of neural circuits is important to understand how brains are built and operate.