PASADENA, Calif.--Scientists at the California Institute of Technology (Caltech) have trained computers to automatically analyze aggression and courtship in fruit flies, opening the way for researchers to perform large-scale, high-throughput screens for genes that control these innate behaviors. The program allows computers to examine half an hour of video footage of pairs of interacting flies in what is almost real time; characterizing the behavior of a new line of flies "by hand" might take a biologist more than 100 hours.
This work--led by Pietro Perona, the Allen E. Puckett Professor of Electrical Engineering at Caltech, and David J. Anderson, the Roger W. Sperry Professor of Biology at Caltech, and a Howard Hughes Medical Institute Investigator--is detailed in the April issue of Nature Methods.
"Everyone wants to know how genes control behavior," notes Anderson. "But in order to apply powerful genetic analyses to complicated social behaviors like aggression and courtship, you need accurate ways of measuring--of scoring--those behaviors."
Previously, the only way to do this was to have students "watch video tapes over and over to record one particular type of behavior at a time," says Anderson. Using this method to measure a number of different types of behaviors--like lunging, tussling, chasing, circling, and copulating--or even to determine the way the flies orient their bodies or set their wings when they encounter another fly, requires the student to watch the same bit of video repeatedly, each time looking at the behavior of a single pair of flies. "In order to screen for mutations affecting aggressive behavior, we would have to analyze something like 2,000 pairs of flies," says Anderson. "It's been virtually impossible to do this without a small army of graduate students."
Enter Perona and Heiko Dankert, a postdoctoral scholar in electrical engineering. Using the techniques of machine vision and combining the
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California Institute of Technology