Engineering the Fruit Fly Rave

Janelia Farmâ''the Howard Hughes Medical Instituteâ''s Bell Labs for neurobiologyâ''needs engineers.

Their mission is to reverse engineer the human brain. They're starting with the fruit fly brain, which they say is less complex than the human brain, but still similar enough to be meaningful. Their funding for this endeavor, from HHMI, is $599 million a year.

The building opened its doors in late 2006 and frankly, it's amazing. Its three brand-new, glittery glass-and-metal stories are built into the side of a hill. Glass and blond wood â''podsâ'' give every scientist a view of distant Sugarloaf mountain and the rolling Virginia hills. Even the labs have glass walls facing the postmodern winding hallways, which in turn also have glass walls facing the exterior. That makes the whole building transparent. One of the researchers told me that during a thunderstorm you can watch the lighting branch over the entire sky.

The cafeteria, which turns into a bar at night, is open for lunch between 11:30 am and 1:00 pm, and they close up shop right at the witching hour. The point of this is to encourage cross-pollination among the different kinds of scientists at Janeliaâ''the place is crawling with neurobiologists, chemists, computer scientists, physicists, and behavioral biologists, all of whom are there to play their part in reverse engineering the brain. Gerry Rubin, Janeliaâ''s director, told me he wanted to remove all possible obstacles from collaboration. At one of the eight-seater round tables, I heard a young Portuguese physicist rhapsodizing about her dream of biologically remote-controlling a fruit fly by turning on and off specific neurons. Next to her, another scientist on sabbatical from Columbia University discussed the finer points of microscopy. The lunch room was as loud as a high school cafeteria.

I spent some time with Janelia Fellow Michael Reiser, who is studying how fruit flies negotiate complex visual surroundings in order to fly without crashing into things. He does this by tethering the insects into whatâ''s essentially a fruit fly raveâ''an arena with flashing wall-to-ceiling LEDsâ''and figures out which areas of their tiny brains start tripping out.

Note: Reiser does not actually play hypnotic dance techno for his fruitflies. That was just me, losing my mind.

Related Stories

Tech Talk

IEEE Spectrum’s general technology blog, featuring news, analysis, and opinions about engineering, consumer electronics, and technology and society, from the editorial staff and freelance contributors.

Newsletter Sign Up

Sign up for the Tech Alert newsletter and receive ground-breaking technology and science news from IEEE Spectrum every Thursday.

Advertisement
Advertisement