Dual mechanism for bitter avoidance in Drosophila

J Neurosci. 2015 Mar 4;35(9):3990-4004. doi: 10.1523/JNEUROSCI.1312-14.2015.


In flies and humans, bitter chemicals are known to inhibit sugar detection, but the adaptive role of this inhibition is often overlooked. At best, this inhibition is described as contributing to the rejection of potentially toxic food, but no studies have addressed the relative importance of the direct pathway that involves activating bitter-sensitive cells versus the indirect pathway represented by the inhibition of sugar detection. Using toxins to selectively ablate or inactivate populations of bitter-sensitive cells, we assessed the behavioral responses of flies to sucrose mixed with strychnine (which activates bitter-sensitive cells and inhibits sugar detection) or with L-canavanine (which only activates bitter-sensitive cells). As expected, flies with ablated bitter-sensitive cells failed to detect L-canavanine mixed with sucrose in three different feeding assays (proboscis extension responses, capillary feeding, and two-choice assays). However, such flies were still able to avoid strychnine mixed with sucrose. By means of electrophysiological recordings, we established that bitter molecules differ in their potency to inhibit sucrose detection and that sugar-sensing inhibition affects taste cells on the proboscis and the legs. The optogenetic response of sugar-sensitive cells was not reduced by strychnine, thus suggesting that this inhibition is linked directly to sugar transduction. We postulate that sugar-sensing inhibition represents a mechanism in insects to prevent ingesting harmful substances occurring within mixtures.

Keywords: Drosophila; behavior; bitter; electrophysiology; mixture interaction; sweet.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Animals
  • Avoidance Learning / physiology*
  • Behavior, Animal / physiology
  • Drosophila melanogaster / physiology*
  • Extremities / innervation
  • Extremities / physiology
  • Female
  • Optogenetics
  • Rhodopsin / physiology
  • Sensilla / physiology
  • Sensory Receptor Cells / physiology
  • Stimulation, Chemical
  • Taste / physiology*


  • Rhodopsin