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*, Álvarez-Ocaña R, Cruchet S, Benton R, Arguello R. Copy number changes in co-expressed odorant receptor genes enable selection for sensory differences in drosophilid species. *co-first authors, Nature Ecology and Evolution (2022), https://doi.org/10.1038/s41559-022-01830-y
Auer TO*, Shahandeh MP*, Benton R. Drosophila sechellia: a genetic model for behavioral evolution and neuro-ecology. *co-first authors, Annual Review Genetics (2021), https://doi.org/10.1146/annurev-genet-071719-020719
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)
Justine Pascual - Lab Manager
Justine received her master’s degree in Bioengineering from the University of Toulouse, France. After moving to Switzerland, she started working in the laboratory of Fisun Hamaratoglu at the CIG, UNIL on growth control and patterning in Drosophila. Then, she joined Etienne Meylan at the EPFL to work on the impact of microenvironment and metabolism on tumor development in lung cancer. She joined our team in May 2021 to explore gustatory circuit evolution in Drosophila species.
Enrico Bertolini - PostDoc
Enrico obtained his bachelor and master degree from the University of Padua, Italy. For his master thesis he moved to the University of Leicester where he studied the diapause of Drosophila melanogaster in the lab of Bambos Kyriacou. He then joined the group of Charlotte Förster at the University of Würzburg where he studied and characterized the circadian clock of selected non-model insect species. He obtained his PhD in 2018 and continued with a project on the anatomical and functional characterization of the dorsal clock neurons of D. melanogaster. Enrico joined the lab in January 2021 to work on the genetic architecture of behavioral traits.
Benedikt Dürr - Intern
Originally from Bavaria, Benedikt obtained his master’s degree in human biology from the Ludwig-Maximilians-Universität München where he also completed his bachelor in biology. In his master’s thesis in the lab of Liron Bar-Peled, MGH & Harvard Medical School, he characterised recently discovered protein interactions in the KEAP1/NRF2 pathway, which human cells use to maintain oxidative homeostasis. His current goal is to decipher underlying and shared principles of biological life forms as well as how they developed.
In our group, he will study how neuronal circuit rewiring influences behavioural traits.
We are always excited about motivated applicants interested in our research at the master and PhD level.
Please directly contact Tom to discuss possibilities.
We are actively involved in supporting TReND in Africa for science and development on the African continent.
As part of our activities, we organize Genome editing courses in different African countries. The next course in 2022 is planned for beginning of November at the Midlands University in Zimbabwe (for details, check out our Genome editing course page).
We are furthermore establishing RT-LAMP based COVID-19 testing capacities in Cameroon and Ghana as part of an international team including labs in both countries, Vienna, Cambridge, London and Germany. Updates on this project can be found here.