With $1.8 million over the first 18 months, the fly brain project will join together the labs of eight Janelia scientists and two visiting scientists from other institutions. The group is spearheaded by Janelia group leader, Dmitri Chklovskii; electron microscope manager, Richard Fetter; and group leader, Harald Hess. They will use emerging electron microscopy technologies to get high-resolution pictures of many thin slices of the Drosophila brain and reconstruct those layers into one three-dimensional image. Understanding how the fly brain is wired will give scientists insight into how networks of neurons control behavior in all animals.
“The fly brain is about a third of a millimeter in size,” says Hess. “We have to go all the way down to see details of cell membranes, with pretty good fidelity, to make the whole idea of tracing neurons practical. Essentially, we need to span a size range from a few nanometers up to a millimeter.”
To make that possible, the scientists are taking several approaches. Some members of the group are tweaking existing microscopes—by automating the transitions between slices, increasing resolution, and trying out various cameras. Others are preparing the brains for imaging, stitching together the many images, or interpreting the results.
“What’s nice about this collaboration is that you don’t have to be an expert on everything,” says Hess. “You can say, okay, here’s one person who can focus on just analyzing the images. Here’s one person who can focus on making the best possible sample preparation or focus on the biology of it. Everybody can dig a little bit deeper into their own subspecialty and rely on our collaborators to fill in everything else.”