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Reaching new heights: Dragonfly research leads to top honor for Union professor



(Photo by Matt Milless)
(Photo by Matt Milless)

Biologist Robert Olberg has long been intrigued by how dragonflies track and intercept their prey.

Olberg, the Florence B. Sherwood Professor of Life Sciences, has spent years researching the role a tiny set of visual neurons play in allowing these fast-flying insects to track and lock in on mosquitoes and other prey with amazing accuracy.

Last year, he was part of a team of researchers on a paper, "Eight pairs of descending visual neurons in the dragonfly give wing motor centers accurate population vector of prey direction," published by the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS), one of the world's most-cited multidisciplinary scientific journals.

The journal's editorial board has announced that the paper has been awarded the Cozzarelli Prize. The annual award recognizes outstanding contributions to the scientific disciplines represented by the National Academy of Sciences.

The paper was one of six chosen from more than 3,700 research articles that appeared in the journal last year. It was cited in the Biological Sciences category.

Olberg credited the lead author, Paloma T. Gonzalez-Bellido, whom he worked with at
Janelia Farm, a research campus of the Howard Hughes Medical Institute in Ashburn, Va. and other members of the team, Hanchuan Peng and Jinzhu Yang (also at Janelia) and Apostolos P. Georgopoulos, a prominent neuroscientist and director of the Center for Cognitive Sciences at the University of Minnesota.

Gonzalez-Bellido built upon research Olberg had done on a group of neurons in the dragonfly that transmits information about prey position and velocity from the dragonfly's brain to the wing-control centers, allowing the dragonfly to intercept flying insect prey. In addition to characterizing their visual responses in greater detail than had been done previously, Gonzalez-Bellido injected the neurons with a fluorescent dye so she could reconstruct their anatomical structure in the wing control centers of the dragonfly's thorax.

Georgopoulos used the data to determine how precise these neurons are in transmitting information about the direction of the target insect. His analysis showed that, when combined, the responses of this small group of neurons provide extremely accurate information about the relative direction of the prey's flight. 

"I'm thrilled to see this work honored by such a prestigious scientific organization," said Olberg, who has been at Union since 1981. "I'm very happy for Paloma and my other co-authors. When I began, more than 30 years ago, trying to understand what information the eyes of a dragonfly were sending to the wings, I never imagined that this story would gain this much recognition."

Olberg and the other winners will be recognized at an awards ceremony during the NAS Annual Meeting on April 28 in Washington, D.C.

The award was established in 2005 and named in 2007 to honor late PNAS Editor-in-Chief Nicholas R. Cozzarelli.

To see the complete list of winners, click here.

To read an earlier story about Olberg's research on the Union news site, click here.