Our goal is to understand the genetic and neuronal structure of social behavior in vertebrates. We use the zebrafish because we have found previously, based on our large-scale genetic screen, that this species provides access to key genetic nodes, entrance points to complex biological processes. For example, complemented by physiological analyses, we were able to begin to understand the fashioning of vertebrate organ systems and the onset of their function.
Social behavior is key to evolution, and its failure the major impediment evident in many psychiatric disorders. The time is ripe for its investigation because of the availability of computational and genetic tools. With quantitative and automated video tracking and imaging, and algorithms which train computers to recognize specific activities, we can capture and analyze robust social behaviors, such as courtship, shoaling, aggression, and leadership. We utilize the transparency of the larval zebrafish to relate such behaviors to the activity of single cells in the brain. We then compare the behaviors and circuitry of fish with defined genetic changes, introduced by CRISPR-based genetic modification of specific loci, including those putatively related to human disease.
(Because the infrastructure required for this work was set up at the Novartis Institutes for BioMedical research (NIBR), the majority of the experiments are conducted there. NIBR is at 181 Mass Ave, next to MIT.)