CDS Lecture Series


Michael Dickinson
Department of Bioengineering
Dickinson Lab
California Institute of Technology

How Flies Fly

A central feature in the natural history and behavior of most insects is the ability to fly through their environment in search of food, shelter, and mates. What physiological and mechanical specializations enable insects to fly stably and orient toward attractive objects? The goal of the research in my laboratory is to `reverse engineer' the flight control system of a fruit fly, and thus determine the means by which the brain and body function collectively to control the animal's trajectory through space. Like all forms of locomotion, flight behavior results from a complex set of interactions, not just within circuits in the brain, but among neurons, muscles, skeletal elements, and physical process within the external world. To control flight, the fly's nervous system must generate a code of motor information that plays out through a small but complicated set of power and steering muscles. These muscles induce microscopic oscillations in an external skeleton that drive the wings back and forth, producing a time-variant pattern of aerodynamic forces that the fly modulates to steer and maneuver through the air. The animal's motion through space alters the stream of information that runs through an array of visual, chemical, and mechanical sensors, which collectively provide feedback to stabilize flight and orient the animal towards specific targets. This research illustrates how processes within the physical world function with neural and mechanical features of an organism's design function to generate complex behavior.

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