AChemS Day 1: Something Wicked This Way Comes

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By Nicole Garneau, PhD

If you are a fan of Shakespeare you will have recognized this quote from Macbeth. If you are a fan of Bradbury you will have recognized this from his 1962 novel of the same name. Either way, the theme is clear--a storm brings conflicting natures. In the case of Bradbury it was the classic good vs. evil. In the case of the opening day of the annual meeting of the Association for Chemoreception Sciences, it was closer to the theme of masculinity in Macbeth- a case of survival. "Everything that happens before death is what counts." (quote from Bradbury's novel)

Here was the scene as a turbulent storm descended upon our hotel just as the meeting was set to open its welcome banquet, and what truly was the catalyst for my tangent into literature. Who knew it would end up fitting so nicely with the opening talk "Neural Control of Aggression" in the model organism of the fruit fly, which the catchy tag line "The Paradox of Sex and Violence."

AChem S-day1

What?!? Am I at the wrong science conference (or as my sister Alex calls them "Nerd Conferences")? What in the world does this have to do with sensory perception?

It turns out, quite a bit, and it comes down to survival. Fruit flies, like many other invertebrates and vertebrates cue into pheromone sensing not only to find attract and court mates, but also to ward off competitors using some serious aggression and violence. Our speaker, Dr. Anderson of the California Institute of Technology, shared these crazy videos, taken at 500 frames per second of male fruit fly aggression. (Dr. Anderson and/or collaborators, if you are out there please put these videos on Vimeo for us all to be wowed by and I will link to it!). My favorite, this one deemed "Lucha libre!" for the impressive body flip and slam of one fly by the other.

Researchers know that aggression is increased in environments with lots of males flies, but also that there are sensory receptors for pheromones that play a role. In fact scientists figured out the genetic component by making a strain of "Rottweiler" fruit fly that has hyper aggressive males. The point being, behavior has to do with both genetics and an individual's social experience (environment), and researchers are now trying to understand the actual process from perception to brain to behavior that is occurring in this model organism.

Long story short- they manipulate both environment and genetics in order to find the answer. And isn't it just like the scientific process to help us find one thing out only to realize it actually led to more questions. So they started with one gene Cyp6a20 which is the instructions for the body to make one of these pheromone receptors. Next they determined exactly what chemical ligand bound this receptor, cVA. Next up, what behavior happens when the ligand and receptor come together in a crowded environment? The answer is increased aggression. The more cVA, the more aggression. Mess with the receptor using genetic manipulation so that the flies can no longer perceive cVA, and bang, no more aggression. The crazy thing, aggression and courting might occur through "multiplex circuit" which means the same neurons and brain pathways are responsible for both behaviors.

I'm going to hugely extrapolate this basic science into the world of humans, so take the rest of this with a grain of salt. How can this help us if it turns out a similar process happens in male humans say during riots following March Madness losses? What if instead of mace and smoke bombs and violence, police were able to spray a non toxic chemical into an aggressive crowd, and this chemical then interfered with detection of pheromones linked to aggressive behaviors, thus decreasing overall violent tendencies in a specific environment at a specific and high need time? As long as it wasn't harmful, it wasn't long lasting, and it didn't interfere with ability to court, would we go for it if it meant potentially saving people and property from group aggression?

I'll leave you with that thought and allude back to literature and the question of conflicting nature (however you want to call it: Shakespeare and Bradbury's good vs evil, E J James' light vs dark, or Dr. Anderson's paradox of sex and violence). Just how different are we from fruit flies?

Enough for tonight, but check out tomorrow's post, likely to include something about the crazy way beliefs and expectations on your response to taste and flavor (e.g. If I tell you something is healthy, you think it tastes worse than if I told you it was a treat.)

Cool stuff, signing off until then.

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