Drosophila reproductive apparatus showing cells expressing octopamine (green). Nuclei (DAPI) are in blue.

Bacteria are all around us: they are on our skin, in the food that we eat and inside our bodies, particularly in the gut. While many of these bacteria are harmless and some even help us digest our food, others can make us ill. Upon detecting harmful bacteria, our bodies therefore trigger an immune response intended to destroy them.

Some insects – including butterflies, moths and grasshoppers – have an additional way of defending themselves against bacteria besides their immune response. Whenever they detect harmful microorganisms, the insects change their behavior so as to reduce their chances of becoming infected and limit the damage an infection would cause. The insects move away from areas containing harmful bacteria, for example, and temporarily stop eating. But whereas the insects’ immune response to bacteria is well documented, little was known about the mechanisms that underlie these changes in behavior.

Kurz, Charroux et al. set out to rectify this using another insect species, the fruit fly Drosophila. Flies that are infected with bacteria lay fewer eggs than healthy flies: a change in behavior that helps protect the offspring from infection. Kurz, Charroux et al. show that fruit flies are able to detect a component of the cell wall that surrounds all bacteria. This substance, known as peptidoglycan, activates a set of neurons in the fly that produce a chemical called octopamine. These neurons in turn activate a signaling pathway featuring a molecule known as NF-kB, and this causes the flies to lay fewer eggs.

Notably, peptidoglycan and NF-kB are also the molecules that trigger the anti-bacterial immune response. Fruit flies thus use the same pathway in immune cells and in neurons to trigger immune responses and behavioral changes, respectively. The challenge now is to identify precisely which neurons respond to bacterial peptidoglycan, and to work out how peptidoglycan changes the activity of these cells. Furthermore, studies have recently shown that bacterial peptidoglycan can influence the development of the mouse brain, as well as mouse behavior. This suggests that mechanisms for detecting harmful bacteria may be conserved across evolution, a possibility that requires further investigation.

Reference

Peptidoglycan sensing by octopaminergic neurons modulates Drosophila oviposition. Kurz CL, Charroux B, Chaduli D, Viallat-Lieutaud A, Royet J.

Elife. 2017 Mar 7;6. pii: e21937. doi: 10.7554/eLife.21937.

Press release – CNRS

Contact

Julien Royet
Institut de Biologie du Développement de Marseille
CNRS UMR 7288 – Aix-Marseille Université
Campus Luminy, Case 907
13288 Marseille cedex 9
Julien.royet@univ-amu.fr
06 13 32 42 81

Leopold Kurz
Institut de Biologie du Développement de Marseille
CNRS UMR 7288 – Aix-Marseille Université
Campus Luminy, Case 907
13288 Marseille cedex 9
leopold.kurz@univ-amu.fr
04 91 26 93 44