Dr. Zain Syed Laboratory
Department of Entomology
S-324c Agricultural Science Bldg. - North
University of Kentucky
Lexington, KY 40546-0091
Office Phone: (859) 257-5142
S-323 Agricultural Science Bldg. - North
Signals, Reception and Perception
Representing more than half of all the known living organisms, insects are the most diverse and most adaptable organisms on earth. They greatly impact today’s society by destroying or consuming almost one third of our domesticated crops and transmitting various life threatening pathogens. Malaria, one of the many diseases transmitted by mosquitoes, takes a human life every 30 seconds in Africa alone.
Like all living organisms, insects detect and respond to chemicals in their environment. Their remarkable success on earth has largely been due to their ability to adapt to new environments and utilize new food resources. To accomplish this, they display an amazing diversity in sensory structure and function. Among these, olfaction is pronounced. In some cases half of their brain is dedicated to smell. A male moth can track a ‘calling’ female from miles. Females, when ready to mate, emit tiny amounts of chemicals that are detected by elaborate and exquisite olfactory organs, i.e. antenna, in male moths. Just fifty years ago, the chemical identity of these signaling molecules was determined and the term ‘pheromone’ was coined. Subsequent neuroethological observations were groundbreaking: a single molecule of this newly discovered pheromone chemical in silk moth, bombykol, was sufficient to elicit an action potential and only a handful of bombykol molecules could induce a complete stereotypic female-search behavior in males.
Now we are at the forefront of combining these two fascinating worlds of signals and receptors. On the one hand we use various analytical and behavior/neurophysiology-guided methods to isolate and identify chemicals (ligands) that are detected by insects (receptors), and on the other hand we combine molecular, cellular, genetic and organismal studies to understand and exploit the sense of smell in insects towards their management.
Our broad interests are twofold: We are interested in identifying plant- and animal-derived volatile organic compounds that act as ligands; & What molecular and cellular elements are involved in detection and discrimination of these ligands that define the olfactory landscape insects are surrounded with.
We employ various analytical methods to isolate and identify volatile chemicals ligands. In parallel we use genetic manipulations, electrophysiological recordings and quantitative behavioral measurements to study the evolution and interplay of chemicals and olfactory receptors.
Some of the questions we are studying are:
- How the rich and diverse chemical landscape is coded by a limited number of olfactory receptor neurons (ORNs)? And how some of the key odorants elicit robust olfactory behaviors, such as host and mate location?
- How selective forces shape the repertoire and function of olfactory receptors (ORs) in closely related, and especially sympatrically evolving insect species?
- How the developmental and experience-dependent plasticity in nervous systems is manifested at the cellular and molecular level?
- How is repulsion mediated in insects?