Claude Desplan

Silver Professor; Professor of Biology


Areas of Interest

Genetic and Mechanistic approaches to development. From the early embryo to the Drosophila visual system.


Pattern formation and development of the visual system in Drosophila

Our laboratory focuses on two major developmental questions: The evolution of early embryonic development and the establishment of retinal and brain circuitry that underlies color vision. These distinct systems represent paradigms for understanding how pattern formation is genetically controlled.

* The first project is an Evo-Devo approach to the earliest steps of insect development, the formation of the antero-posterior embryonic axis. In flies, the morphogenetic gradient of the Bicoid protein is essential for anterior development. However, bicoid is not conserved and is a newly evolved gene that has taken over the ancestral function. We are using the wasp Nasonia as an alternate model system to study how a very distant species patterns its axis. Nasonia is a Hymenoptera that diverged from Diptera over 200MY ago but exhibits a long germband mode of development similar to flies. The genome of Nasonia is sequenced and there are early developmental mutants and parental RNAi to address gene function. We have shown that Nasonia, like flies, utilizes an anterior morphogenetic center to generate the patterning information required for the formation of all segments but uses localized otd instead of bcd mRNA. Our ongoing investigations attempt to understand the entire segmentation pattern in Nasonia, with the goal of reaching the same level of mechanistic detail as in Drosophila.

* The other system that we study is the determination of the retinal mosaic that underlies color vision in flies. Color vision is achieved through the comparison in the brain of inputs coming from photoreceptors containing rhodopsins with different wavelength specificity. Different rhodopsins are expressed in stochastic but mutually exclusive patterns in the compound eye of Drosophila as in cones of the vertebrate retina. A given rhodopsin gene is stochastically chosen, leading to repression of all others. Another mechanism must then inform the brain of its connection to a photoreceptor with a given color sensitivity. We have used molecular and genetic approaches to decipher the genetic network that controls the specification of the 8 types of photoreceptors that form the retinal mosaic.

* Visual information is processed in the optic lobes. Two types of photoreceptors mediate motion detection or color discrimination by projecting to lamina (motion) or medulla (color) parts of the optic lobes. We focus our attention on the medulla that contains a finite number of neurons and serves as a paradigm to understand the development and function of a sophisticated neural structure. We have defined 70 medulla cell types: projection neurons, local interneurons, columnar neurons (that contact photoreceptors from each unit eye), and non-columnar neurons (that contact termini from several unit eyes). These neurons form overlapping retinotopic maps before projecting to the lobula complex or back to the lamina. We study how medulla neuron diversity is generated and how these neurons establish their retinotopic connections to photoreceptors. Neuronal specification appears to result from the integration of three mechanisms: (i) Neuroblasts sequentially acquire distinct identity and produce unique neuronal types as they age; (ii) binary fate induction via Notch diversifies their daughter cells (iii) regionalization of the medulla modifies the neuroblast program for further neuronal diversity. We use this knowledge together with electrophysiology and behavior assays to investigate how neuronal types function in the motion and chromatic pathways.


"Principles of Biology" (V230012). This is the Freshman course in Biology for undergraduates.

"Biocore I and III" (G23.1001 & G23.2003). This is the core course for PhD and MS students, focusing on molecular and cellular processes

"Molecular and Cellular Biology". (V23.0022) This is the high level Biology Sophomore class for undergraduate Biology majors.

"Molecular Controls of animal form and function" (G23.1072). A graduate course focusing on the evolution of patterning mechanisms.

"Developmental Genetics I and II" (G16.2610) with the Skirball Institute, NYU Medical School. This is a high level team-taught course for PhD students in the common Developmental Genetics curriculum.

Also teaching Biocore II and IV (G23.1002 & G23.2004) and "Cell Molecular Development Neuroscience" (G80.2201) at the Center for Neuroscience.



Ecole Normale Supérieure de Saint Cloud, "Agregation" in Physiology and Biochemistry (Paris); Award from the Fondation Simone et Cino Del Duca; Award from the Fondation pour la Recherche sur le Cancer; Postdoctoral Fellow from the Fogarty International Center and European Molecular Biology Organization; Andre Meyer Fellow, The Rockefeller University; Howard Hughes Medical Institute Associate Investigator, 1988-1999. 2007: elected Fellow of the New York Academy of Sciences. elected member of the AAAS. 2008: elected associate member of EMBO

Selected Works

Feedback from Rhodopsin protein controls rhodopsin exclusion in Drosophila R8 photoreceptors Vasiliauskas D., Mazzoni E.O., Sprecher S, Brodetskiy K., Johnston R, Lidder P., Vogt N, Celik A and Desplan C. Nature, In Press, (2011)

Interlocked feedforward loops control cell-type-specific rhodopsin expression in the Drosophila eye. Johnston RJ Jr, Otake Y, Sood P, Vogt N, Behnia R, Vasiliauskas D, McDonald E, Xie B, Koenig S, Wolf R, Cook T, Gebelein B, Kussell E, Nakagoshi H, Desplan C. Cell. 2011 Jun 10;145(6):956-68. PMID:21663797[PubMed - in process]

The retinal mosaics of opsin expression in invertebrates and vertebrates. Rister J, Desplan C. Dev Neurobiol. 2011 May 9. doi: 10.1002/dneu.20905. [Epub ahead of print] PMID:21557510

The phylogenetic origin of oskar coincided with the origin of maternally provisioned germ plasm and pole cells at the base of the Holometabola. Lynch JA, Ozüak O, Khila A, Abouheif E, Desplan C, Roth S. PLoS Genet. 2011 Apr;7(4):e1002029. Epub 2011 Apr 28. PMID:21552321[PubMed - in process] Free PMC Article

Johnston R. Jr. Otake Y., Sood P., Vogt N., Behnia R., Vasiliauskas.D, McDonald E., Xie B., Koenig ., Wolf R., Cook T, Gebelein B, Kussell E, Nagakoshi H. & Desplan C. Inter-locked feedforward loops control specific Rhodopsin expression in the Drosophila eye, Cell 145, 956-968 (2011)

Vasiliauskas D, Mazzon E, Johnston R, Sprecher S, Vogt N, Lidder P & Desplan C. Feed-back from Rhodopsin protein controls rh exclusion in Drosophila R8 photoreceptors. Nature, In press (2011)

Jukam and & Desplan C. Binary regulation of Hippo pathway by Merlin/NF-2 and Melted specifies and maintains post-mitotic neuronal fate, Dev. Cell, Under revision (2011)

Werren J., Richards S., Desjardins C., Niehuis O, Gadau J, Colbourne J, Beukeboom L., Desplan C. et al. Functional and evolutionary insights from the genomes of 3 parasitoid Nasonia species. Science, 327, 343-8 (2010).

Johnston, R. J. Jr. & Desplan C. A Penetrating look at stochasticity in development Cell 140, 610-612 (2010).

Johnston, R.J. Jr. & Desplan C. Stochastic mechanisms of cell fate specification that yield random or robust outcomes. Annu. Rev. Cell. Dev. Biol. 26, 16.1–16.31 (2010)

Lynch J.A. & Desplan C. Novel modes of localization and function of nanos in Nasonia. Development, 137, 3813-21 (2010).

Vogt N, Desplan C. Flipping the light switch. Science 330, 454-5 (2010). 

Yamaguchi ., Desplan C & Heisenberg M. Contribution of photoreceptor subtypes to spectral wavelength preference in Drosophila. Proc. Natl. Acad. Sci. 107, 5634-9. (2010)

Losick R. & Desplan C. Stochastic choices and cell fate. Science 320, 65-68 (2008)

Sprecher, S.G., & Desplan C. Switch of rhodopsin expression in terminally differentiated Drosophila sensory neurons. Nature 454, 533-537 (2008)

Mazzoni E, Celik A, Wernet M, Vasiliauskas D, Cook T, Johnston RJ, Pichaud F & Desplan C. IroC genes induce co-expression of visual pigments in Drosophila. PLoS Biology 6, e97,825-835 (2008).

Morante J., & Desplan C. The color-vision circuit in the medulla of Drosophila. Current Biology, 18, 553-565 (2008).

Rosenberg M.I., & Desplan C. Hiding in Plain Sight. Science 329, 284-285 (2010)