Coordinated walking in vertebrates and multi-legged invertebrates such as Drosophila melanogaster requires a complex neural network coupled to sensory feedback. An understanding of this network will benefit from systems such as Drosophila that have the ability to genetically manipulate neural activities. However, the fly's small size makes it challenging to analyze walking in this system. In order to overcome this limitation, we developed an optical method coupled with high-speed imaging that allows the tracking and quantification of gait parameters in freely walking flies with high temporal and spatial resolution. Using this method, we present a comprehensive description of many locomotion parameters, such as gait, tarsal positioning, and intersegmental and left-right coordination for wild type fruit flies. Surprisingly, we find that inactivation of sensory neurons in the fly's legs, to block proprioceptive feedback, led to deficient step precision, but interleg coordination and the ability to execute a tripod gait were unaffected.
Most animals need to be able to move to survive. Animals without limbs, such as snakes, move by generating by wave-like contractions along their bodies, whereas limbed animals, such as vertebrates and arthropods, walk by coordinating the movements of multi-jointed arms and legs. Locomotion in limbed animals involves bending each joint within each arm or leg in a coordinated manner, while also ensuring that the movements of all the limbs are coordinated with each other. In bipeds such as humans, for example, it is critical that one leg is in the stance phase when the other leg is in the swing phase. The rules that govern the coordination of limbs also depend on the gait, so the rules for walking are not the same as the rules for running.
The nervous systems of bipeds and other animals that walk solve these problems by using complex neural circuits that coordinate the firing of the relevant motor neurons. Two general mechanisms are used to coordinate the firing of motor neurons. In one mechanism, local interneurons within the central nervous system coordinate motor neuron activities: in vertebrates these interneurons are found in the spinal cord. A second mechanism, termed proprioception, relies on sensory neurons that report the load and joint angles from the arms and legs back to the central nervous system, and thereby influence the firing of the motor neurons. Remarkably, both of these mechanisms, and also the types of neurons that comprise motor neuron circuits, are conserved from arthropods to vertebrates.
Mendes et al. describe a new approach that can be used to analyze how the fruit fly, D. melanogaster, walks on surfaces. They use a combination of an optical touch sensor and high-speed video imaging to follow the body of the fly as it walks, and also to record when and where it places each of its six feet on the surface as it moves. Then, using a software package called FlyWalker, they are able to extract a large of number of parameters that can be used to describe locomotion in adult fruit flies with high temporal and spatial resolution. Many of these parameters have never been measured or studied before.
Mendes et al. show that fruit flies do not display the abrupt transitions in gait that are typically observed in vertebrates. However, they do modify their neural circuits depending on their speed: indeed it appears that flies use subtly different neural circuitry for walking at slow, medium and fast speeds. Moreover, when genetic methods are used to block sensory feedback, the fly is still able to walk, albeit with reduced coordination and precision. Further, the data suggest that proprioception is less important when flies walk faster compared to when they walk more slowly. The next step in this research will be to combine this new method for analyzing locomotion in flies with the wide range of genetic tools that are available for the study of Drosophila: this will allow researchers to explore in greater detail the components of the motor neuron circuitry and their role in coordinated walking.