Reading insects’ minds

24/Nov/2015

At work, the biologist Richard Benton is fascinated by the senses of the fruit fly. At home this passionate pianist is responsible for the laundry and the cooking. By Chantal Britt

(From "Horizons" no. 107, December)

​Most biologists dissect fruit flies at some point in their training. But few are so taken by Drosophila melanogaster that years later their eyes still sparkle like a child mastering a new skill. Richard Benton is one of those few. This 38-year-old professor at the University of Lausanne investigates the insect’s sense of smell. His curiosity and desire to understand nature also persist when he leaves the campus.

“I often think about insects and their behaviour when I’m outside of work”, says Benton. “Why do fruit flies tend to line up on the edge of a cupboard, or why are they
more attracted to bananas than apples?” At times he is overly enthusiastic when he
shares his reasoning at home, as he concedes: “I just have to look at my children
rolling their eyes!” But his wife, Sophie Martin, shares his love for research. Incidentally, she’s one of the reasons why he came to Switzerland in the first place. They first met in Cambridge during their PhD studies. Their science later also took them to New York.

From New York to Préverenges

Benton says he could have settled anywhere – in his native Edinburgh, elsewhere
in the UK, or in the USA. “But my wife was keen to return to Lausanne”, he recalls.
“She managed to get a prestigious SNSF professorship in microbiology, and I was
also lucky to get an assistant professorship”. Their home village Préverenges initially
seemed a little too rural as a place to live. “There are still moments when I miss
the buzzing 24/7 life of a fast-paced city”.

“At the same time our life has changed. I really appreciate having a house with a
garden, from which I can easily go hiking, jogging or swimming in the lake”. As another convenience, Benton points out having in-laws nearby. “With a young family
and a career in science you already end up sacrificing the pursuit of your more intensive hobbies – at least for some time”. Benton is a keen cello player and pianist, and his wife plays the violin, but neither can dedicate enough time to practising to be
able to join an orchestra as they did in New York. “But that time will come again”, he is convinced.

His office – decorated with family photographs and baby T-shirts – prominently
displays pictures drawn by his daughter’s schoolmates on a visit to his lab. “I like
their enthusiasm, fascination and curiosity”. Benton himself has preserved a lot
of this childlike enthusiasm. Excitedly he picks up an electron microscope image
with an oversized head of a fruit fly, and points out the fly’s nose.

Protecting vineyards from fruit flies

“They have around a hundred different sensory receptors”, he explains. “Although
their nose is simpler than our own, odour perception in insects is strikingly similar
to how humans smell, when we look at how their neural circuits are organised”.
His research group dissects fly brains and uses many different approaches to try to
understand this fascinating and complex sense – from genetics and imaging to recording electrical signals in neurons and behavioural experiments.

“If we understand how insects detect pheromones and food odours in the lab, we can also try to chemically manipulate the mechanisms controlling their odour-evoked behaviour in the wild”. Benton picked D. melanogaster, the common vinegar fly that is attracted to rotten fruit, on the basis that this model organism has been studied for over a century and more is known about its biology than almost any other animal.

While D. melanogaster is only mildly annoying when it feasts upon rotting produce
in our kitchen fruit bowls, a more serious pest is the closely related Drosophila suzukii, which lays its eggs in ripe fruit, damaging grape and strawberry crops worldwide, including in Benton’s local Lavaux region. If researchers can decipher why this species is attracted to fresh fruit instead of rotting fruit, it might be possible to ward them off crops or to trap them somewhere far from our farms.

“So I may do basic research, but it is only a small step to practical applications. Our
findings may not only help us control pests in agriculture, they can also potentially
help us to conquer diseases such as malaria, dengue fever and sleeping sickness, which are transmitted by bloodsucking insects including mosquitoes and tsetse flies”.

A sabbatical at the lab bench

Benton feels lucky that his job situation has worked out so well. He sees Switzerland
as one of the best places for basic research. He praises not only the funding but also
the possibility of getting tenure, which offers scientists a stability that is difficult to
find elsewhere in Europe.

And Lausanne has certainly grown on him. He likes its quality of life and punctual
public transport. Benton is considering applying for Swiss citizenship, and has
even taken to skiing. “At the moment my skiing is about as proficient as my French”,
Benton says with a smile. “But I’m constantly improving and I enjoy it more every
year. I certainly have to get better because I will need to keep up with my children on
the slopes”.

Benton’s main frustrations are that he is not able to guarantee his trainees an academic career in science because of a lack of positions, as well as the related problem of gender inequality at the professorial level. He agrees with his wife that it is challenging to juggle child-care and two demanding full-time positions, and thinks that it is essential to avoid adhering to traditional family roles. “My wife is the one drilling the holes and filling in the tax forms at home, while I do most of the laundry and the cooking. And when one of our kids falls sick, we invoke an action plan of who will stay at home when”, Benton says.

“At work, I wear different hats throughout the day: I’m a mentor, a teacher, an administrator, and a colleague”. But above all, he still considers himself a researcher. Benton’s dream sabbatical would be simply to spend time back at the lab bench – for the pure pleasure of doing science.

Chantal Britt is a freelance journalist.

A successful nose

Richard Benton (38) has been studying sensory perception in fruit flies at the
University of Lausanne since 2007. After his PhD at the University of Cambridge, he also worked at Rockefeller University in New York. He has won several awards, most recently the National Latsis Prize in 2015.

Video interview with Richard Benton