The role of NompC (=TRPN1) for mechanotransducer gating and adaptation in the Drosophila ear

Funding Body

HFSP, Young Investigators Award - RGY0070/2011


At the heart of all sensation lies a common process: The opening or closing (called the gating) of dedicated ion channels in the membranes of sensory cells. These so-called sensory transducer channels convert external stimulus energy- such as the mechanical energy contained in a sound wave- into an electrical current that flows through the sensory cell's membrane. In the case of the classical mechanical senses, i.e. the senses of touch, hearing and balance, these mechano-transducer channels are deemed to be gated in the most direct way possible, namely by the stimulus forces themselves. This direct mode of activation implies that the transducers must somehow be mechanically coupled to specialized stimulus receiver structures, such as our ear drums or the antennal sound receivers of fruit flies, for example. Somewhat ironically, however, the astonishing simplicity of their mode of activation appears to have greatly complicated the molecular identification of true mechano-transducer channels to this day. Recently, it was demonstrated that mechano-transduction in the sensory cells of the fruit-fly (Drosophila) ear, relies on mechano-transducer channels that operate according to the same biophysical principles as those in the inner ears of vertebrates. Fortunately, in Drosophila, the function of these transducer channels can be assessed in vivo, in the ears of intact flies. Given the enormous genetic tractability of the fruit fly, along with the availability of a multitude of mechano-sensory mutants, the Drosophila ear therefore constitutes an ideal system in which to probe the specific roles of identified proteins in the process of mechano-sensation, particularly their contributions to mechano-transduction. This proposal will initiate the molecular dissection of mechano-transducer function in the Drosophila ear by specifically assessing the role of an ion channel called NompC. The NompC channel, which reportedly serves mechanosensory functions in the ears of both vertebrates and invertebrates, is presently the best candidate for a true, auditory mechano-transducer channel. A common feature of mechano-transducers in the ears of both fruit flies and vertebrates seems to be their ability to adapt to a maintained stimulus: in vertebrate hair cells this adaptation is mediated by specialized adaptation motors which act to release tension from those elements that couple forces to the transducer channels, thus allowing for the channels to close despite the presence of the stimulus. Most remarkably, the adaptation of transducer channels in the Drosophila ear appears to operate in the same way as in vertebrates. Several lines of evidence have suggested an involvement of NompC in the process of mechano-transduction or mechano-transducer adaptation in Drosophila but more direct evidence remains outstanding. By using biophysical, transgenetic and modelling approaches, I will investigate the specific contribution of NompC to mechano-transduction and/or adaptation in the Drosophila ear. Despite the fact that the NompC channel, though present in the ears of non-mammalian vertebrates, seems to be absent from the ears of mammals, the study proposed here will also provide for a better understanding of our own ears' workings. Studies in non-mammalian vertebrates, such as turtles and frogs have provided much insight into fundamental mechanisms of auditory function that also apply in mammals, This study in the fruit fly is likewise expected to make a significant contribution to our molecular understanding of how ears translate the mechanical forces provided by sound into electrical signals which can be processed further on in the brain.

From genes to circuits: the evolution of species-specific communication in Drosophila

Funding Body

HFSP, Young Investigators Award - RGY0070/2011


  • MURTHY Mala -Dept. of Molecular Biology and Neuroscience - Princeton University - Princeton - USA
  • KAMIKOUCHI Azusa -Graduate School of Science - Nagoya University - Nagoya - Japan
  • AERTS Stein -Center for Human Genetics, Lab of Computational Biology - University of Leuven - Leuven - Belgium


All phenomena of the living world shape, and are shaped by, the process of evolution. In perhaps no other area of biology this fundamental duality becomes as evident as in the complex communication systems that mediate mate recognition in the animal kingdom. Both neurobiologically and evolutionarily, the task of recognizing a potential mate for reproduction is truly a multiple-task including the fundamental challenge of sex and species recognition as well as the more sophisticated exercise of taxing the potential mate’s fitness, i.e. its likely reproductive value. Unsurprisingly thus, when it comes to their mating decisions animals usually rely on signals from multiple sensory information channels. One sensory system that is frequently involved in the mating negotiations of both vertebrates and invertebrates is the sense of hearing: From marine mammals to air-borne mosquitoes, acoustic courtship rituals have evolved that include the generation, reception and subsequent analysis of species-specific sound signals. A prominent example is the acoustic courtship of flies of the genus Drosophila. As part of their mating ritual, male flies sing a ‘love song’ to their females. These songs differ across fly species and are deemed to contribute to both species isolation and speciation in Drosophilid flies. We here attempt to elucidate the evolutionary, material and mechanistic bases of species-recognition in the Drosophila acoustic communication system. Applying state-of-the art techniques in biophysics, bioinformatics, genetics, bioengineering, neuroanatomy, behavioural analysis, and in vivo electrophysiology, across the 12 recently sequenced Drosophila species, we will explicitly probe for species-specific mechanisms underlying the emission, reception, and processing of sound in the fly. Our project represents an unprecedented multi-level approach, not only to acoustic courtship in Drosophila, but to animal communication, molecular evolution and speciation in general.

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