Thomas obtained his PhD in 2014 from the Ruprecht-Karls-University in Heidelberg. In his thesis work he studied the role of axonal transport in visual system development and pioneered genome editing tools in zebrafish in the labs of Joachim Wittbrodt, Heidelberg and Filippo Del Bene, Institute Curie, Paris. From 2015 to 2019 he joined the lab of Richard Benton at UNIL to investigate the genetic basis of olfactory circuit evolution establishing D. sechellia as a neurogenetic model system. In January 2020 he started his own research program as Ambizione fellow at the CIG on the evolution of chemosensory-guided behaviors.
Smell and taste are two of the primary senses that guide the decision to approach or reject a potential food substrate, mating partner etc… This decision is based on sensory input of olfactory (smell) and gustatory (taste) chemosensory organs where receptors expressed in sensory neurons interact with defined chemical ligands. We use these circuits to gain mechanistic insights into the evolution of chemosensory-guided behaviors using closely-related drosophilid species as model system.
We mainly focus our work on D. sechellia, an endemic species from the Seychelles, which has a common ancestor with the cosmopolitan, ecological generalists D. melanogaster and D. simulans ~3 and 0.1-0.24 million years ago, respectively. Within this relatively short timespan, D. sechellia has evolved extreme specialism for the ripe “noni” fruit of the Morinda citrifolia shrub for feeding and oviposition and shows substantial behavioural divergence in other traits. Using a comparative evolutionary approach we decipher how gene expression, sensory physiology and neural circuit architecture has changed within this species clade and try to establish causal links to behavioral differences.
To answer our research questions related to the unique ecology of D. sechellia we develop and introduce new genetic tools into this and other drosophilid species. We are currently working, in collaboration with the Benton lab, e.g. on the establishment of good attP sites, Split-Gal4 drivers, clonal labelling approaches etc. If you are interested in our toolset, please write to Tom directly for further details.
Auer TO#, Khallaf MA, Silbering AF, Zappia G, Ellis K, Alvarez-Ocana R, Arguello JR, Hansson BS, Jefferis GSXE, Caron SJC, Knaden M, Benton R#. Olfactory receptor and circuit evolution promote host specialization. #co-corresponding authors, Nature (2020), https://doi.org/10.1038/s41586-020-2073-7
Khallaf MA., Auer TO, Grabe V., Depetris-Chauvin A., Ammagarahalli B., Zhang DD., Lavista-Llanos S., Kaftan F., Weißflog J., Matzkin LM., Rollmann SM., Löfstedt C., Svatoš A., Dweck HKM., Sachse S., Benton R., Hansson BS., Knaden M. Mate discrimination among subspecies through a conserved olfactory pathway. Science Advances (2020), https://doi.org/10.1126/sciadv.aba5279
Sánchez-Alcañiz JA, Silbering AF, Croset V, Zappia G, Sivasubramaniam AK, Abuin L, Sahai SY, Münch D, Steck K, Auer TO, Cruchet S, Neagu-Maier GL, Sprecher SG, Ribeiro C, Yapici N, Benton R. An expression atlas of variant ionotropic glutamate receptors identifies a molecular basis of carbonation sensing. Nature Communications (2018), https://doi.org/10.1038/s41467-018-06453-1
Auer TO, Benton R. Sexual circuitry in Drosophila. Curr Opin Neurobiology (2016), https://doi.org/10.1016/j.conb.2016.01.004
Thomas O. Auer - Group Leader (Ambizione)
Billy Morris - PhD Student
Billy spent his undergrad at the University of Bristol. During his degree he worked under Dr. Emily Bell, looking to investigate how genetic relatedness predicts dyadic and network interaction in primitively eusocial paper wasps. After a brief foray into vertebrate behavioural ecology in South Africa, he then began his Masters at the University of Cambridge, supervised by Dr. Stephen Montgomery. Here he explored olfactory adaptation in ithomiine butterflies using neuroanatomy and RNA sequencing. He then joined the Drosophila Connectomics group, led by Dr Gregory Jefferis, characterising sexually dimorphic circuits from a full adult female drosophila EM brain volume, led by Dr. Dana Galili. Billy joined the lab in August 2020 to work on gustatory evolution between specialist and non-specialist drosophilids.
We are always excited about motivated applicants interested in our research at the master and PhD level. Please directly contact Tom to discuss possibilities.