Convergent Mechanosensory Input Structures the Firing Phase of a Steering Motor Neuron in the Blowfly, Calliphora

Amir Fayyazuddin, Michael H. Dickinson


The first basalar muscle (B1) is 1 of 17 small steering muscles in flies that control changes in wing stroke kinematics during flight. The B1 is often tonically active, firing a single phase-locked action potential in each and every wingbeat cycle. Changes in activation phase alter the biomechanical properties of B1, which in turn cause aerodynamically relevant changes in wing motion. The phase-locked firing of the B1 motor neuron (MNB1), is thought to arise from an interaction of wingbeat-synchronous inputs from the wings and from specialized equilibrium organs called halteres that beat antiphase to the wings and function to detect angular rotation of the body during flight. We investigated how the wing and haltere inputs interact to determine the firing phase of MNB1. Our results indicate that both wing and haltere afferents make strong monosynaptic connections with MNB1, consisting of fast electrical and slow Ca2+-sensitive components. Although both the wing and haltere-evoked excitatory postsynaptic potentials (EPSPs) display the two components, their relative contribution is different for the two inputs. Whereas the haltere-evoked EPSP is dominated by the fast electrical component, the wing-evoked EPSP is dominated by a large chemically mediated component and displays an additional prolonged Ca2+-dependent component that is absent in the haltere-evoked EPSP. Both inputs display an activity-dependent fatigue affecting both electrical and Ca2+-sensitive components, from which the haltere synapse recovers more rapidly. The net result of these synaptic differences is that the two pathways differ significantly in their relative ability to evoke action potentials in MNB1. Although the haltere pathway displays greater temporal precision, the wing pathway is stronger, judged by its ability to entrain MNB1 within a background of haltere stimulation. We propose a model by which these physiological differences play a functional role in tuning the firing phase of MNB1 during flight. The wing input may serve primarily to set the background firing phase of MNB1, whereas the haltere input serves to transiently advance the firing phase during equilibrium reflexes.


  • Present address and address for reprint requests: A. Fayyazuddin, Laboratoire de Neurobiologie, Ecole Normale Supérieure, 46 rue d’Ulm, 75005 Paris, France.

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