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How Resources Control Aggression in Drosophila


Lim, Rod S. (2015) How Resources Control Aggression in Drosophila. Dissertation (Ph.D.), California Institute of Technology. doi:10.7907/Z9R78C4T.


How animals use sensory information to weigh the risks vs. benefits of behavioral decisions remains poorly understood. Inter-male aggression is triggered when animals perceive both the presence of an appetitive resource, such as food or females, and of competing conspecific males. How such signals are detected and integrated to control the decision to fight is not clear. Here we use the vinegar fly, Drosophila melanogaster, to investigate the manner in which food and females promotes aggression.

In the first chapter, we explore how food controls aggression. As in many other species, food promotes aggression in flies, but it is not clear whether food increases aggression per se, or whether aggression is a secondary consequence of increased social interactions caused by aggregation of flies on food. Furthermore, nothing is known about how animals evaluate the quality and quantity of food in the context of competition. We show that food promotes aggression independently of any effect to increase the frequency of contact between males. Food increases aggression but not courtship between males, suggesting that the effect of food on aggression is specific. Next, we show that flies tune the level of aggression according to absolute amount of food rather than other parameters, such as area or concentration of food. Sucrose, a sugar molecule present in many fruits, is sufficient to promote aggression, and detection of sugar via gustatory receptor neurons is necessary for food-promoted aggression. Furthermore, we show that while food is necessary for aggression, too much food decreases aggression. Finally, we show that flies exhibit strategies consistent with a territorial strategy. These data suggest that flies use sweet-sensing gustatory information to guide their decision to fight over a limited quantity of a food resource.

Following up on the findings of the first chapter, we asked how the presence of a conspecific female resource promotes male-male aggression. In the absence of food, group-housed male flies, who normally do not fight even in the presence of food, fight in the presence of females. Unlike food, the presence of females strongly influences proximity between flies. Nevertheless, as group-housed flies do not fight even when they are in small chambers, it is unlikely that the presence of female indirectly increases aggression by first increasing proximity. Unlike food, the presence of females also leads to large increases in locomotion and in male-female courtship behaviors, suggesting that females may influence aggression as well as general arousal. Female cuticular hydrocarbons are required for this effect, as females that do not produce CH pheromones are unable to promote male-male aggression. In particular, 7,11-HD––a female-specific cuticular hydrocarbon pheromone critical for male-female courtship––is sufficient to mediate this effect when it is perfumed onto pheromone-deficient females or males. Recent studies showed that ppk23+ GRNs label two population of GRNs, one of which detects male cuticular hydrocarbons and another labeled by ppk23 and ppk25, which detects female cuticular hydrocarbons. I show that in particular, both of these GRNs control aggression, presumably via detection of female or male pheromones. To further investigate the ways in which these two classes of GRNs control aggression, I developed new genetic tools to independently test the male- and female-sensing GRNs. I show that ppk25-LexA and ppk25-GAL80 faithfully recapitulate the expression pattern of ppk25-GAL4 and label a subset of ppk23+ GRNs. These tools can be used in future studies to dissect the respective functions of male-sensing and female-sensing GRNs in male social behaviors.

Finally, in the last chapter, I discuss quantitative approaches to describe how varying quantities of food and females could control the level of aggression. Flies show an inverse-U shaped aggressive response to varying quantities of food and a flat aggressive response to varying quantities of females. I show how two simple game theoretic models, “prisoner’s dilemma” and “coordination game” could be used to describe the level of aggression we observe. These results suggest that flies may use strategic decision-making, using simple comparisons of costs and benefits.

In conclusion, male-male aggression in Drosophila is controlled by simple gustatory cues from food and females, which are detected by gustatory receptor neurons. Different quantities of resource cues lead to different levels of aggression, and flies show putative territorial behavior, suggesting that fly aggression is a highly strategic adaptive behavior. How these resource cues are integrated with male pheromone cues and give rise to this complex behavior is an interesting subject, which should keep researchers busy in the coming years.

Item Type:Thesis (Dissertation (Ph.D.))
Subject Keywords:Neuroscience, neuroethology, behavior, genetics, machine vision, systems biology
Degree Grantor:California Institute of Technology
Division:Biology and Biological Engineering
Major Option:Systems Biology
Thesis Availability:Public (worldwide access)
Research Advisor(s):
  • Anderson, David J.
Thesis Committee:
  • Sternberg, Paul W. (chair)
  • Zinn, Kai George (co-chair)
  • Anderson, David J.
  • Perona, Pietro
Defense Date:28 August 2014
Record Number:CaltechTHESIS:11222014-220142839
Persistent URL:
Related URLs:
URLURL TypeDescription adapated for Chapter 2
Default Usage Policy:No commercial reproduction, distribution, display or performance rights in this work are provided.
ID Code:8730
Deposited By: Rod Lim
Deposited On:03 Dec 2014 22:45
Last Modified:08 Nov 2023 00:22

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