Background: The social life of animals depends on communication between individuals. Recent studies in Drosophila melanogaster demonstrate that various behaviors are influenced by social interactions. For example, courtship is a social interaction mediated by pheromonal signaling that occurs more frequently during certain times of the day than others. In adult flies, sex pheromones are synthesized in cells called oenocytes and displayed on the surface of the cuticle. Although the role of Drosophila pheromones in sexual behavior is well established, little is known about the timing of these signals or how their regulation is influenced by the presence of other flies.
Results: We report that oenocytes contain functional circadian clocks that appear to regulate the synthesis of pheromones by controlling the transcription of desaturase1 (desat1), a gene required for production of male cuticular sex pheromones. Moreover, levels of these pheromones vary throughout the day in a pattern that depends on the clock genes and most likely also depends on the circadian control of desat1 in the oenocytes. To assess group dynamics, we manipulated the genotypic composition of social groups (single versus mixed genotypes). This manipulation significantly affects clock gene transcription both in the head and oenocytes, and it also affects the pattern of pheromonal accumulation on the cuticle. Remarkably, we found that flies in mixed social groups mate more frequently than do their counterparts in uniform groups.
Conclusions: These results demonstrate that social context exerts a regulatory influence on the expression of chemical signals, while modulating sexual behavior in the fruit fly.