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Benjamin H. White, Ph.D.

Building 35 Room 1B-1012
35 Convent Drive MSC 3736
Bethesda MD 20892-4035
Office: (301) 435-5472
Lab: (301) 402-8658
Fax: (301) 402-1218

Dr. White received his Ph.D. in the Neural Sciences at Washington University in St. Louis and conducted postdoctoral research at Yale, where he began to develop genetic tools for neuronal manipulation. Since joining NIMH in 2002, he has continued to develop methods for the targeted manipulation of neurons for the purpose of mapping neuronal circuits in the fruit fly, Drosophila melanogaster. The circuit of primary interest to Dr. White’s laboratory—the Section on Neural Function—governs the motor sequences executed by fruit flies during molting. Molting relies critically on the action of hormones and neuromodulators, and a primary aim of Dr. White’s research is to understand how these intrinsic signals act on neural networks and integrate with information from the environment to orchestrate ordered motor sequences. Planning and executing such sequences is a fundamental aspect of all behavior, including in humans, where deficits in initiating, terminating, and organizing actions characterizes many mental disorders. Dr. White is a long-standing member of the Society for Neuroscience and of the Genetics Society of America. Since 2014, he has also served on the Scientific Advisory Board at the Bloomington Drosophila Stock Center (BDSC).

Brains exist to generate behavior. Understanding how they accomplish this task is a primary interest of the Section on Neural Function (AKA, the White Lab). Working on the relatively small brain of the fruit fly, Drosophila melanogaster, we seek to understand how the brain integrates information from the environment and the body to make behavioral decisions. We also seek to understand how the brain executes those decisions by generating appropriate actions. To answer these questions, we use genetic tools to make targeted manipulations of brain activity in living, behaving animals. These manipulations allow us to identify and characterize the brain networks underlying behavioral processes. Developing tools to facilitate this research is another major goal of our laboratory.

Our behavioral research focuses on the specific motor sequences performed by fruit flies during molting. Molting sequences (also called “ecdysis sequences”) represent a simple, tractable model for studying the neuromodulatory mechanisms that govern behavior, and the questions we seek to answer are fundamental to nearly all animal behaviors. The fly has repeatedly proved to be an excellent model for studying biological processes common to all animals (exemplified most recently by the award of the 2017 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine to fly researchers who elucidated the molecular mechanisms of circadian rhythms), and our hope is that the mechanisms of behavioral control that we discover in the fly will deliver insights into the general operation of all nervous systems, including our own.

Components of the Wing Expansion Network

The figure shows the complement of neurons in the adult fruit fly nervous system that express the hormone, Bursicon. This hormone plays critical roles in regulating behavior at both pupal and adult ecdysis. At pupal ecdysis, Bursicon regulates an essential switch in motor pattern by acting on neurons of a multifunction pattern generator. This behavioral switch drives the transformation of the larval body into that of the adult: the adult head is deployed, and the wings and legs are pushed to the body surface and elongated. At adult ecdysis, Bursicon released from a single pair of neurons (labeled BSEG in the figure) initiates and maintains the expansion of the new exoskeleton and the initially folded wings. Bursicon released from neuroendocrine cells (labeled BAG in the figure) act outside the nervous system to subsequently harden and tan the wings and exoskeleton. It is this action that gives Bursicon its name, from the Greek, bursikos, for tanning. Note that the Bursicon-expressing neurons have been individually labeled in different colors using a technique called Multicolor FlpOut.

Staff Image
  • Matthew Barker, B.S.
    Postbaccalaureate Fellow

  • Fengqiu Diao, Ph.D.

  • Amicia Elliott, Ph.D.
    Postdoctoral Fellow

  • Princess Felix, B.S.
    Postbaccalaureate Fellow

  • Haojiang Luan, Ph.D.
    Staff Scientist

  • Robert Scott, M.S.

  • Luis Sullivan, Ph.D.
    Postdoctoral Fellow

  • Richard Vuong, B.S.
    Postbaccalaureate Fellow

  • 1) Luan, H., Kuzin, A., Odenwald, W.F., White, B.H. (2020)
  • Cre-assisted fine-mapping of neural circuits using orthogonal split inteins.
  • eLIFE: Apr 14;9:e53041. [doi: 10.7554/eLife.53041]
  • 2) Scott, R.L., Diao, F., Silva, V., Park, S., Luan, H., Ewer, J., White, B.H. (2020)
  • Non-canonical Eclosion Hormone-Expressing Cells Regulate Drosophila Ecdysis.
  • iScience May 22;23(5):101108. [doi: 10.1016/j.isci.2020.101108]
  • 3) Diao F, Elliott AD, Diao F, Shah S, White BH (2017)
  • Neuromodulatory connectivity defines the structure of a behavioral neural network.
  • Elife 6.
  • 4) Dolan MJ, Luan H, Shropshire WC, Sutcliffe B, Cocanougher B, Scott RL, Frechter S, Zlatic M, Jefferis GSXE, White BH (2017)
  • Facilitating Neuron-Specific Genetic Manipulations in Drosophila melanogaster Using a Split GAL4 Repressor
  • Genetics 206, 775-784.
  • 5) Diao F, Mena W, Shi J, Park D, Diao F, Taghert P, Ewer J, White BH (2016)
  • The Splice Isoforms of the Drosophila Ecdysis Triggering Hormone Receptor Have Developmentally Distinct Roles
  • Genetics 202, 175-89.
  • 6) White BH (2016)
  • What genetic model organisms offer the study of behavior and neural circuits
  • J Neurogenet 30, 54-61.
  • 7) Diao, F., Ironfield, H., Luan, H., Diao, F., Shropshire, W.C., Ewer, J., Marr, E., Potter, C.J., Landgraf, M., and White, B.H. (2015)
  • Plug-and-Play Genetic Access to Drosophila Cell Types using Exchangeable Exon Cassettes.
  • J Cell Reports 10, 1410–1421.
  • 8) White BH, Ewer J (2014).
  • Neural and hormonal control of postecdysial behaviors in insects.
  • Annu Rev Entomol 59, 363-81.
  • 9) Diao, F. and White, B. H. (2012)
  • A Novel Approach for Directing Transgene Expression in Drosophila: T2A-Gal4 In-Frame Fusion.
  • Genetics 190: 1139–1144
  • 10) Luan, H., Diao, F., Peabody, N. C., and White, B. H. (2012)
  • Command and compensation in a neuromodulatory decision network.
  • J Neurosci 32: 880–889
  • 11) Diao, F. and White, B. H. (2012)
  • A Novel Approach for Directing Transgene Expression in Drosophila: T2A-Gal4 In-Frame Fusion.
  • Genetics, 190, 1139-1144
  • 12) Luan, H., Diao, F., Peabody, N. C., and White, B. H. (2012)
  • Command and compensation in a neuromodulatory decision network
  • J Neurosci, 32, 880-889
  • 13) Ting, C.Y., Gu, S., Guttikonda, S., Lin, T.Y., White B.H., Lee, C.-H. (2011)
  • Focusing Transgene Expression in Drosophila by Coupling Gal4 With a Novel Split-LexA Expression System
  • Genetics, 188, 229-33
  • 14) Peabody, N. C., Pohl, J. B., Diao, F., Vreede, A. P., Sandstrom, D. J., Wang, H., Zelensky, P. K., and White, B. H. (2009)
  • Characterization of the Decision Network for Wing Expansion in Drosophila Using Targeted Expression of the TRPM8 Channel.
  • J. Neurosci., 29, 3343–53
  • 15) White, B. H. and Peabody, N. C. (2009)
  • Neurotrapping: cellular screens to identify the neural substrates of behavior in Drosophila
  • Front Mol Neurosci, 2, 20 Epub Nov 2009 (doi:10.3389/neuro.02.020.2009).
  • 16) Krashes, M.J., DasGupta, S., Vreede, A., White, B., Armstrong, J.D., Waddell, S. (2009)
  • A Neural Circuit Mechanism Integrating Motivational State with Memory Expression in Drosophila
  • Cell, 139, 416-427
  • 17) Peabody, N. C., Diao, F., Luan, H., Wang, H., Dewey, E., Honegger, H-W., and White, B. H. (2008)
  • Bursicon Functions within the Drosophila Central Nervous System to Modulate Wing Expansion Behavior, Hormone Secretion, and Cell Death.
  • J. Neurosci., 28, 14379-91
  • 18) Gao, S., Takemura, S., Ting, C-Y., Huang, S., Lu, Z., Luan, H., Rister, J., Thum, A. S., Yang, M., Hong, S-T, Wang, J.W., Odenwald, W. F., White, B. H., Meinertzhagen, I. A., and Lee, C-H. (2008)
  • The Neural Substrate of Spectral Preference in Drosophila.
  • Neuron, 60, 328-42
  • 19) Luan, H and White, B.H. (2007)
  • Combinatorial Methods for Refined Neuronal Gene Targeting
  • Curr Opin Neurobiol , 17, 572-80
  • 20) Luan, H., Peabody, N.C., Vinson, C.R., and White B. H. (2006)
  • Refined Spatial Manipulation of Neuronal Function by Combinatorial Restriction of Transgene Expression.
  • Neuron, 52, 425-436
  • 21) Luan H, Lemon W. C., Peabody N, Pohl J. B., Zelensky P. K., Wang D, Nitabach M. N., Holmes T. C., and White B. H. (2006)
  • Functional Dissection of a Neuronal Network Required for Cuticle Tanning and Wing Expansion in Drosophila
  • Journal of Neuroscience, 26, 573-584
  • 22) Joiner, W.J., Crocker, A., White, B.H., and Sehgal A. (2006)
  • Sleep in Drosophila is regulated by adult mushroom bodies.
  • Nature, 441, 757-60
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