Dr. Thomas O. Auer, Group Leader (Ambizione)


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.


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.

Genetic tool development in D. sechellia

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.

Representative Publications

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

Please find a full publication list on Pubmed here.



Thomas O. Auer


Tel: +41 21 692 3992


Administrative assistant

Iris Marouani
Tel: +41 21 692 3960