California Institute of Technology (Caltech) scientists have trained computers to automatically analyze aggression and courtship in fruit flies, allowing researchers to perform large-scale, high-throughput screens for the genes that control these behaviors. The computers can examine a half-hour of video footage of pairs of flies interacting and characterize the behavior of a new line of flies, which could take a biologist more than 100 hours. Using the techniques of machine vision and other engineering advancements, Caltech professor Pietro Perona and postdoctoral scholar Heiko Dankert started training computers to see and recognize aggression and courtship behaviors, creating an automated system that can monitor a variety of behaviors in fruit-fly pairs in only a few minutes. “This is a coming-of-age moment in this field,” says Perona. “By choosing among existing machine vision techniques, we were able to put together a system that is much more capable than anything that had been demonstrated before.” The pair fed the computer the characteristic details of each individual behavior, and once the computer had mastered those details, the researchers compared the computer’s analysis to the analysis done by a human. After repeating this process and correcting errors made by the computer, the computer system is now actually better than humans at detecting some of the various behaviors. The next step is to extend the automatic behavior-detection system to mice.
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