lines of research
The main interest of our laboratory is to understand the physiological mechanisms that regulate behavior in mammals. Our studies focus on investigating the ontogeny of behavioral processes, how and why they are elicited, and the underlying molecular and system-level mechanisms.
The specific research directions of our laboratory include:
1. Ontogeny of physiological processes in mammals.
We are very interested in the study of the emergence of mammalian physiological processes at early developmental ages (4th question of Tinbergen). Our theoretical inspiration is that to fully understand how a complex system works we must understand how it functionally develops. Based on this premise, our initial focus is on the ontogeny of the machinery involved in (1) metabolic control and nutrient sensing, and (2) the behavior development of the infant. These studies have the potential to contribute to the long-sought relationship between early life experiences and their long-lasting influences on mammalian physiology and pathophysiology.
The study of early life physiology has made little progress, partly due to the substantial technical limitations in using neonatal animals. Our laboratory is focused on developing methods to study physiological processes in neonatal mammals. We are interested in applying system-level approaches to investigate the ontogeny of physiological processes.
2. Developing tools to quantify mammalian behaviors in ecologically relevant conditions.
We are studying the behavior of mammals in semi-natural environments during extended periods. To accomplish this goal, we have assembled a multidisciplinary team of scientists with knowledge spanning from psychology to computer sciences. We apply novel machine learning algorithms to track, quantify, analyze, and visualize mammalian behaviors. Among the different behaviors we quantify in the lab, we are especially interested in the emission of vocalizations (e.g., ultrasonic vocalizations in the case of rats and mice) and group behaviors.
Additionally, we apply tools of systems neurosciences and whole-brain mapping to uncover neuronal populations and neuronal circuits involved in specific behaviors. Here, we are particularly interested in comparative studies, probing the function of these specific neuronal mechanisms across different mouse strains and mammalian species.
3. The origins of individual variability in mammals.
We are interested in the origins of individual variability in physiological processes, and the fundamental mechanisms by which mammals differ in themanifestation of disease. We are especially interested in the molecular mechanisms that predispose individuals to chronic metabolic disorders, neurodegenerative diseases, and cancer. The complex biology underlying these diseases is stifled by the genetic heterogeneity among the human population. This heterogeneity prevents our understanding of how other factors (epigenetics, environment, stochasticity, etc.) contribute to the origins of phenotypic variability and the manifestation of disease. Our overall laboratory goal is to elucidate the mechanisms that act in addition to genetic variation to yield human differences in phenotype and manifestation of diseases.
To study the molecular origins of inter-individual variability we are using armadillos (Dasypus novemcinctus) as the only mammal that always gives birth to identical quadruplets (four genetically identical twins). The four biological replicates provide unprecedented analytical power to investigate the mechanisms of variability, which cannot be achieved even with twin studies. We are studying mechanisms that mediate variability at the molecular level in the armadillos to identify fundamental and novel insights into individual-to-individual phenotypic variability that is in addition to genetic variation. We also study several mouse lines, including wild-derived mice, to investigate the origins of behavior and physiological variability.