“Genetic correlations among developmental and contextual behavioral plasticity in Drosophila melanogaster”

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Julia B. Saltz, Seana Lymer, Jessica Gabrielian, and Sergey V. Nuzhdin

Different types of behavioral plasticities are genetically correlated in flies

Can these larvae learn? Investigating genetic variation in aversive conditioning in fruit fly larvae

Drosophila melanogaster larvae choosing between ethyl acetate and control odors.
(Credit: Julia B. Saltz)

Should “nature vs. nurture” really be “nature and nurture”? The old opposition between nature and nurture presents behaviors as either due to genes, or to learning—but not both. In contrast, genetic differences might influence the ways that individuals interact with, and learn from, their environments. To test how learning and other types of behavioral responses to the environment differ among genotypes, researchers have turned to larvae of the fruit fly, Drosophila melanogaster. Although tiny and with simple brains, larvae can learn to avoid odors that that have previously proved harmful. By measuring different fly genotypes from a single population—almost 50,000 flies in total—the researchers find heritable genetic variation in the flies’ ability to associate an odor with a harmful electric shock. Further, genotypes that are more adept at learning to avoid the odor also use environmental cues to fine-tune their decisions about where to pupate—more so than genotypes with lower learning scores. These results represent the first time these two seemingly different types of behavioral changes have been found to be genetically correlated.

Identifying the relationships between learning and other types of behavioral flexibility is important for predicting how animals might change their behavior in response to environmental changes, such as invasive species, and for understanding how learning might evolve. More broadly, genetic variation in the ways that individuals interact with and respond to their environments highlights the complex ways that both genes and the environment—nature and nurture—together orchestrate behavior. Read the Article