Understanding Fish Behavior Across Levels of Biological Organization

Date(s) - 08/29/2016
3:00 pm

James C. Liao, Ph.D., Associate Professor, Department of Biology, University of Florida, Whitney Laboratory for Marine Bioscience

Dr. Liao’s research seeks to integrate engineering and neuroscience approaches to better understand the mechanisms of vertebrate behavior. He currently has two lines of research that span different levels of biological organization; from single neurons to group behaviors: 1) fish locomotion and behavior in unsteady flows and 2) functional organization of the flow-sensing lateral line system in larval zebrafish. His seminar will cover his work on how fish use less muscle activity and save energy by adopting a new swimming gait to surf on experimentally generated vortices. This was the first empirical work to directly demonstrate the hydrodynamic benefit of fish schooling. Dr. Liao is interested in understanding behavior in more natural condition and anticipates that the development of this approach will greatly inform his laboratory experiments and vice versa. For much of Dr. Liao’s research area, he employs engineering approaches to extract underlying principles behind the diversity and complexity of natural behaviors. His interest in behavior at the organismal level has led him to investigate how sensory signals are processed at the single neuron level. Dr. Liao leverages powerful optical, genetic and electrophysiological techniques to study the functional development of flow-sensitive lateral line system in zebrafish, which have many components that are identical to the mammalian inner ear system. Many of the recent advances in the field of zebrafish genetics offer an unparalleled opportunity to attack longstanding question of how neural circuits can initiate and modify behavior at the organismal level. Mechanisms of sensorimotor transformation can be addressed by using mutant lines deficient in certain proteins that compromise functionality. Ever-evolving molecular techniques, combined with the functional data that electrophysiology and calcium imaging provide, enable a way to answer longstanding questions about the mechanisms of behavior in powerful ways. His lateral line studies lay the ground work to generate predictive models of the mechanisms of sensorimotor behaviors, which may have important implications for understanding vertebrate hair cell systems more broadly. Ultimately, his long term research interests lie in understanding the neural and physical mechanisms of how animals sense and move in natural environments by integrating across several levels of biological organization.



Dr. Liao received a B.A. in Biology from Wesleyan University in 1996 where he worked on elasmobranch electroreception in David Bodznick’s laboratory. He completed his Ph.D. in Biology at Harvard University from 1999-2004 investigating how fish swim in turbulent flows in George Lauder’s laboratory. He then worked as a postdoctoral research assistant at Cornell University from 2004-2008 on the neural circuits of behavior in zebrafish in Joe Fetcho’s laboratory. He started as an assistant professor in the biology department at University of Florida in 2009. He is currently funded by the NIH and NSF.

The Liao Lab is interested in the biomechanical and neural mechanisms of how animals interact with their environment, specifically how fishes sense flow and swim. We like to ask questions inspired by the natural history of the animal, and then choose techniques to test hypotheses in the most direct manner possible. We adopt an experimental approach to understanding ecologically relevant behaviors, and welcome students and collaborators from a diversity of backgrounds that view the aquatic world through the lenses of engineering, neuroscience, and evolution.

The Liao Lab is part of The Whitney Lab for Marine Bioscience, an institute of the University of Florida, Gainesville. We are members of the Biology Department, the Florida Museum of Natural History, the American Museum of Natural History (NYC), and the Clayton Pruitt Family Department of Biomedical Engineering.