Celebrating outstanding publications

Ilaria Vitali and Johannes Kappel receive Young Scientist Award

Groundbreaking science, published in prestigious journals: this description applies equally to the research of Ilaria Vitali and Johannes Kappel. While Ilaria Vitali dealt with the question of how the large number of different cell types in the brain arises, Johannes Kappel investigated how zebrafish recognize each other. Both researchers have now received the Young Scientist Award to honor their scientific publications.

Genealogy with brain cells

Our body consists of hundreds of cell types that perform specific functions. The brain harbors a particularly large diversity of cells, including over 100 different types of inhibitory neurons alone. How does this enormous diversity arise?

Ilaria Vitali from Christian Mayer's research group and her colleagues investigated the processes that lead to cell diversity in the mouse brain. The team developed a new method to uniquely label cells with barcodes of artificial DNA sequences. This allowed the researchers to track which cells descended from each other. The team also analyzed in parallel the mRNA molecules – the working copies of genes – in individual cells to assign the labeled cells to different cell types.

By combining the two methods, the researchers could show that the degree of relationship between brain cells cannot be inferred based on cell type. Contrary to what is often assumed, cells of a similar cell type don’t originate from a common ancestor in many cases, whereas unrelated progenitor cells can give rise to similar cell types.

The origin of neuronal diversity
Insights into the mechanisms leading to different cell types in the brain more

Ilaria Vitali studied biotechnology in Milan and received her PhD in neuroscience from the University of Geneva. She then worked as a postdoctoral researcher at the University of Geneva and in Christian Mayer’s group at the Max Planck Institute for Biological Intelligence (formerly Max Planck Institute of Neurobiology). Since 2022, she has been a researcher at the University of Lausanne.

Social recognition among zebrafish

Humans as well as many animals live in societies. As a prerequisite for social interactions, however, individuals must first identify others as belonging to their own kind.

Johannes Kappel from Herwig Baier's department studied young zebrafish to find out how the brain recognizes conspecifics. Together with his colleagues, he discovered a neural circuit in the brain that mediates social attraction. The specialized pathway runs from the retina deep into the brain and enables zebrafish to detect and approach nearby conspecifics.

In their research, the team used a specially developed virtual reality setup, in which young zebrafish can interact with simulated conspecifics. At the same time, the scientists measured the brain activity of the swimming zebrafish. The experiments showed that a simulated conspecific activates specific nerve cells in a brain area known as the thalamus. The nerve cells connect the visual system of the zebrafish with other brain regions that are active during social behavior, thus regulating social approach and affiliation in zebrafish.

Illustration of a fish head with eye and brain cells. Several zebrafish in the background.
Specialized nerve cells in the zebrafish visual system enable recognition of conspecifics more

Johannes Kappel studied Biosciences and Molecular Biomedicine in Münster, with research stays at the HHMI Janelia Research Campus (Ashburn, USA) and at New York University. Since 2018, he has been conducting his PhD research in Herwig Baier’s department at the Max Planck Institute for Biological Intelligence.

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