Vikas Bhandawat chose to study the sense of smell in fruit flies because it is so much simpler than sight. Less than 10,000 neurons! But how to control the odors and map the fly's reaction? His group has devised an apparatus that traps the fly between 2 glass plates and confines the odor to one area. Vikas can then track the fly's reaction, not just whether it is attracted or repelled, but how fast it moves, how often it pauses, and its trail over the plate. Looking at his results for 2 different flies, it was striking that there was a basic pattern for each fly that remained consistent whether the fly was sensing an odor or not. One stopped frequently and ventured straight out and back, while the other stayed in motion but varied its speed, and took wide excursions to the plate's rim.
Good Lord, can fruit flies actually be individuals?
Yes, says Vikas; we think that we are very complex, but fruit flies are really amazing. "I wouldn't mind to be a fly. But the real question is, how much are we humans like the fly?" Vikas now works the problem from the other end with his current favorite activity: watching his 14-month-old daughter grow up.