I study how the sense of smell works, using maggots. You and me have about 4 million smell cells in our noses. A maggot has just 21, and by using genetics we can make a maggot with just a single smell cell. By studying these animals and the electrical activity of their smell cells, we can understand how smells are processed. The bits of the maggot brain that process smells are wired up just like ours - by studying a simple maggot we hope to understand how the sense of smell works in all animals, including humans. With collaborators in America I have looked at how human populations vary for the genes that enable us to smell. We studied one particular gene in over 2000 indigenous people and showed that it is the focus of natural selection. We also looked at this gene in extinct human populations (Neanderthals, Denisovans) and were able to understand how they would have perceived certain odours.
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Behaviour genetics, olfaction, chemical communication and the history of science
I study behaviour, communication and perception and the way in which they are shaped by genes, environment and their interaction.
Most of my research has focused on insect behaviour and its evolutionary and genetic bases, in particular on genetic and developmental factors involved in chemical communication - olfaction and pheromones.
My olfaction research focuses on the nature of olfactory coding, its relation to the evolution and ecology of a given organism, and its underlying genetic and neurological basis. My current model is theDrosophila larva - the maggot has only 21 olfactory receptor neurons, but is capable of detecting over 60 odours. I am particularly interested in comparative studies of chemical communication and its evolution, and have also made comparative studies of the neurogenetics of larval olfaction in Tribolium castaneum.
I am interested in courtship behaviour in a wide range of Drosophila species, in particular the role of pheromones in inter- and intra-specific behaviour, and the genetic bases of pheromone production and detection.
Together with Dr Kara Hoover of the University of Alaska, I have recently branched out into human olfaction. We studied the evolution of a particular gene coding for an olfactory receptor, and were able to reconstruct this part of the nose of an extinct group of humans called the Denisovans and explore how they were able to smell. You can find the article here.
I also study the history of science, in particular the history of genetics/reproduction, focussing on the 17th century and the 1950s and 1960s, culminating in two popular science books, The Egg and Sperm Race and Life's Greatest Secret.