My research interests mainly evolve around the question of how the insect brain processes gustatory (taste) and olfactory (smell) information and how the underlying neuronal circuits are modified through development and learning. In addition to these more fundamental questions, I am also interested to see whether the plasticity of these neuronal circuits might enable insects to better cope with changes in their environment.
My first contact with the insect world happened as a research assistant at the Bavarian State Institute for Forestry. During this time, I witnessed some of the tremendous impacts which insects can have on an ecosystem. At the same time, I also had the chance to see the fascinating specificity that exists in the relationship between insects and plants.
Triggered by these experiences, I started my MSc study in Wageningen with the aim to learn more about the insect brain and how this tiny organ processes its environment. Together with Hans Smid, I finally study octopaminergic neurons (the insect norepinephrine) in the insect brain with the hope to gain more insights into the way insects perceive a positive reward.
Insect behaviour is often thought to be predetermined by genetically fixed action patterns, which have evolved in response to specific environmental stimuli. Famous examples of this include the upwind flight of male moth in response to female pheromones or the host-plant choice of butterflies. During my PhD at the Max Planck Institute for Chemical Ecology in Germany, I was hoping to explored a similar innately driven behaviour by studying olfactory preferences of the hawkmoth Manduca sexta for flowers that match its nearly eight centimetres long proboscis. While working in the group of Markus Knaden, we discovered that these hawkmoths not only recognise the odour of those flowers that exactly match their proboscis in flight, but that they also possess specific olfactory receptors on the tip of their proboscis to evaluate these flowers at a close range. Later, I had the chance to join Richard Fandino in a study on the role of olfaction during foraging and host-plant finding, using the first Crispr-Cas9 knockout mutant in Manduca. We found that although the flower recognition in these hawkmoths was highly dependent on innate odour recognition, oviposition behaviour was more flexible and likely uses further sensory modalities.
I finally had the opportunity to return to Wageningen on an NWO Veni grand, focusing on the olfactory system in the large cabbage white butterfly, Pieris brassicae and its caterpillar. In December 2020, I started my tenure track in the group of Marcel Dicke and we have now extended our initial investigation of the large cabbage white to the broader context of host-plant selection.
Caterpillars of different cabbage white butterflies almost exclusively feed on plants containing glucosinolates (mustard oils) and female butterflies also innately recognise these plants during oviposition. However, cabbage white butterflies can occur in a wide range of habitats and females face many different challenges during their search for a suitable host plant, including manmade environmental change. We now aim to understand how the innate search patterns in the brain of a female butterfly are up-dated through developmental processes and learning in order to better adapted to an ever-changing environment.