"All the sophisticated behavior that you see really boils down to changes in the pattern of a handful of cells," he said today in a broadcast of the Pulse of the Planet radio program.
(National Geographic News and Pulse of the Planet receive funding from the National Science Foundation.)
Dickinson explained that flies have image-forming eyes that process information ten times faster than human eyes and sensors that tell the flies how fast they are rotating in space.
(Related news: "Fly Eyes Inspire Better Video Cameras, Motion Detection" [September 7, 2006].)
The flies' brains fuse the information from their eyes with the information from their built-in "gyroscopes" and transform it into the output of a small number of cells that control muscles at the base of their wings.
This, he said, allows the insects to perform their "absolutely extraordinary maneuvers."
Last month, Dickinson and colleagues at Caltech and the University of California at Berkeley, received a $4.4 million (U.S.) grant from the National Science Foundation to further investigate how brain activity controls the flies' complex behavior.
The researchers plan to genetically engineer specific cells in the fruit flies' nervous systems that can be turned on and off with pulses of light.
The technique will allow the scientists to study the function of these cells in living animals.
A central goal of the research will be to understand how fly flight is related to activities such as looking for food and shelter, finding a mate, laying eggs, and getting out of harm's way.
"We will begin with the assumption that an animal's own natural behavior is the best context in which to interpret how its nervous system is built," Dickinson explained in a media statement about the grant.
Complex But Not Incomprehensible
Jane Wang is an associate professor of theoretical and applied mechanics at Cornell University in Ithaca, New York, who studies flapping flight.
She said that while the mechanics of insect flight are relatively complex systems, "there's hope of understanding them."
"Some things are so daunting we don't know where to start," she said. "Here it's daunting, but we have some idea of how to figure this out."
In an interview with National Geographic News, Dickinson says he is primarily interested in flies not only because they are good models for human genetics but also because of what they can say about the mechanics of many biological systems.
"I think it is a valid goal," he said, "to try to figure out how other interesting organisms on the planet work and not focus exclusively on humans."
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