How genes control courtship and aggression

Summary: Study shows how sex-determining genes can mediate courtship and aggressive behaviors in fruit flies. The findings demonstrate the complexity of the relationship between behavior and sex.

Source: Salk Institute

Fruit flies, like many animals, engage in a variety of courtship and fighting behaviors. Now, Salk scientists have uncovered the molecular mechanisms by which two sex-determining genes affect fruit fly behavior. The male flies’ courtship and aggression behaviors, they showed, are mediated by two distinct genetic programs. The findings, both published in eLife on April 21, 2020, demonstrate the complexity of the link between sex and behavior.

“Courtship and aggression seem to be controlled somewhat separately by these two genes,” says Kenta Asahina, an assistant professor in Salk’s Molecular Neurobiology Laboratory and senior author of the two papers. “Having behaviors controlled by different genetic mechanisms can have some benefits in terms of evolution.” In other words, he explains, a fly population that is under evolutionary pressure to compete more–perhaps due to limited resources–can evolve aggressive behaviors without affecting courtship.

Male fruit flies’ aggression is primarily toward other males, while their courtship behaviors–which involve a series of movements and songs–are toward female flies. Both behaviors are reinforced by evolution over time, because the ability of male flies to compete with other males and attract females directly affects their ability to mate and pass on their genes.

Researchers already knew which neurons in the brain are important for controlling aggression and courtship. In general, studies had suggested that specialized brain cells called P1/pC1 neurons, promote both courtship and aggression while Tk-GAL4FruM neurons promote aggression specifically. They also knew that the two sex-determining genes fruitless (fru) and doublesex (dsx) played key roles in this behavior. But the connection between the genes and the behaviors hadn’t been clear.

In the new study, Asahina and his colleagues raised Drosophila fruit flies that contained light-activatable versions of the courtship and aggression neurons. The team could turn the neurons on at any time by shining a light on the flies. The researchers next altered the fru or dsx genes in some of these male flies. They then developed an automated system using machine-learning to analyze videos of the flies and count how often they carried out aggressive or courtship behaviors.

“We made a computer system to capture aggressive behaviors and courtship behaviors to more quickly and accurately count actions,” says Salk postdoctoral fellow Kenichi Ishii, co-first author of both of the new papers. “Getting the program to work was actually difficult and time-consuming but in the end, it made it easier for us to get good data.”

The team found that dsx was required for the formation of courtship-inducing neurons: when the fruit flies had the female version of dsx, the courtship neurons were no longer present. On the other hand, fru played a different role–without this gene, flies could still be coaxed to perform courtship behaviors by activating courtship neurons but the courtship was directed at both males and females, suggesting that fru was required for flies to differentiate between the sexes. For aggression, however, the findings were the opposite: fru but not dsx was required for the activation of aggression neurons to cause fighting in male flies.

“This is an important example of the neurobiological differences between sexes and what kind of approaches we can use to study sexually-linked behaviors,” says Asahina, who holds the Helen McLoraine Developmental Chair in Neurobiology.

This shows fly brains
Researchers studied how sex-determining genes affect neurons known to control courtship (shown in orange on the left) and aggression (shown in blue on the right) in fly brains. Image is credited to Salk Institute.

“I think the interesting part of this is understanding that sex is really not a binary thing,” says UC San Diego doctoral student Margot Wohl, co-first author of both of the new papers. “A lot of factors come together to control behaviors that differ between the sexes.”

Since sex determination in flies is very different than in humans–fruit flies don’t have sex hormones, for instance–the new findings don’t carry over to how biological sex may impact behavior in people. But Asahina says his approach–the combination of optogenetics and sex-linked gene manipulation–may be useful in understanding behaviors that vary by sex in other animals.

Andre DeSouza of Salk was also an author on one of the two papers.

Funding: The work was supported by grants from the National Institute of General Medical Sciences (GM119844); the National Institute on Deafness and Other Communication Disorders (DC015577); the Naito Foundation; the Japan Society for the Promotion of Science; the Mary K. Chapman Foundation; and the Rose Hills Foundation.

About this neuroscience research article

Salk Institute
Media Contacts:
Salk Communications – Salk Institute
Image Source:
The image is credited to Salk Institute.

Original Research: Open access
“Sex-determining genes distinctly regulate courtship capability and target preference via sexually dimorphic neurons”. by Kenichi Ishii, Margot Wohl, Andre DeSouza, Kenta Asahina.
eLife doi:10.7554/eLife.52701


Sex-determining genes distinctly regulate courtship capability and target preference via sexually dimorphic neurons

For successful mating, a male animal must execute effective courtship behaviors toward a receptive target sex, which is female. Whether the courtship execution capability and upregulation of courtship toward females are specified through separable sex-determining genetic pathways remains uncharacterized. Here, we found that one of the two Drosophila sex-determining genes, doublesex (dsx), specifies a male-specific neuronal component that serves as an execution mechanism for courtship behavior, whereas fruitless (fru) is required for enhancement of courtship behavior toward females. The dsx-dependent courtship execution mechanism includes a specific subclass within a neuronal cluster that co-express dsx and fru. This cluster contains at least another subclass that is specified cooperatively by both dsx and fru. Although these neuronal populations can also promote aggressive behavior toward male flies, this capacity requires fru-dependent mechanisms. Our results uncover how sex-determining genes specify execution capability and female-specific enhancement of courtship behavior through separable yet cooperative neurogenetic mechanisms.

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