Sarah Certel

Associate Professor


Personal Summary

Research in my lab focuses on understanding how genetic and neural networks function to mediate social behavior in Drosophila. We are exploring how the brain is wired for behavior and decision-making using multiple approaches.

Behavior:  Aggression in Drosophila provides an excellent system to study both the neural substrates of this complex behavior as well as how an organism activates aggressive over other social behaviors. In males, aggression and the reproductive behavior courtship, provide a relevant choice point to examine how context-specific sensory information is integrated into the CNS to generate the appropriate behavioral responses in complex social situations. We are currently examining the octopamine (OA) neuronal system as a key component in this male decision-making process.

Epigenetics: IIn our second project, we are investigating how the highly plastic chromatin environment regulates cellular differentiation and cellular output. Methyl-CpG binding domain (MBD) -containing proteins bind methylated DNA and function to translate this chemical modification into appropriate tissue or cell differentiation states. We are examining how reductions in Drosophila MBD-containing proteins alter the functional differentiation of neurons necessary for the behaviors of sleep and aggression. As a whole, our studies provide insight into an under examined area of epigenetics by delivering a critical readout not just of nuclear changes to cellular differentiation defects but nuclear changes to circuit or network dysfunction.

Developmental Biology:  Our third experimental approach focuses on understanding how gene-environment interactions contribute to brain development and function. We are asking: How does modification of the local environment surrounding individual neurons or small neuronal groups regulate their connectivity and function? To begin to address this question, we are studying the CCN family of secreted multimodular proteins. Members of this family have been proposed to bridge the functional and physical gap between extracellular matrix-associated proteins and cell surface molecules by binding to both matrix proteins as well as cell surface receptors. We have identified the Drosophila member of the CCN family and are initially focusing on how this CCN protein contributes to CNS development and functions as a basis to provide new insight into the fundamental role of cell-extracellular matrix regulation in developmental, pathological and behavioral processes.


Postdoctoral Training, Harvard Medical School, 2000-2009

Ph.D. University of Iowa, 1999

M.A. University of Nebraska-Omaha, 1993

B.S. Evangel University, 1991

Courses Taught

BIOB 375 General Genetics (alternating Spring semesters)

BIOH 441 CNS Diseases

BIOH 458 Neuroscience Research Techniques Lab

Research Interests

See the lab webpage for more detailed information.

Field of Study

Behavioral Neurobiology


Developmental Biology

Selected Publications

Sherer LM, Catudio Garrett E, Morgan HR, Brewer ED, Sirrs LA, Shearin HK, Williams JL, McCabe BD, Stowers RS, Certel SJ. Octopamine neuron dependent aggression requires dVGLUT from dual-transmitting neurons. PLoS Genet. 2020 Feb;16(2):e1008609. PubMed Central PMCID: PMC7059954.

McKinney HM, Sherer LM, Williams JL, Certel SJ, Stowers RS. Characterization of Drosophila octopamine receptor neuronal expression using MiMIC-converted Gal4 lines. J Comp Neurol. 2020 Sep 1;528(13):2174-2194. PubMed Central PMCID: PMC7998515.   

Sherer, L. and Certel, S.J (2019) Fighting males: new approaches for old questions. Current Opinion in Insect Science Jun 27;36:18-24. doi: 10.1016/j.cois.2019.06.004

Gupta T, Morgan HR, Andrews JC, Brewer ER, and Certel SJ. (2017) Methyl-CpG binding domain proteins inhibit interspecies courtship and promote aggression in Drosophila. Sci Rep. 2017 Jul 14;7(1):5420.

Gupta T, Morgan HR, Bailey JA, and Certel S.J. (2015) Functional conservation of MBD proteins: MeCP2 and Drosophila MBD proteins alter sleep. Genes Brain Behav. 2016 Nov;15(8):757-774

Hess-Homeier, D.L., Fan, C-Y, Gupta, T., Chiang, A-S., and Certel., S.J. (2014) Astrocyte-specific regulation of hMeCP2 expression in Drosophila. Biology Open, Oct 10;3(11):1011-9.

Andrews, J.C., Fernández, M.P., Yu, Q., Leary, G.P., Leung, A.K.W., Kavanaugh, M.P, Kravitz, E.A., and Certel, S.J. (2014) Octopamine neuromodulation regulates the Gr32a pathway to promote aggression in Drosophila males. PLoS Genetics May 22;10(5):e1004356.

Certel, S.J. and Kravitz, E.A. (2012) Scoring and analyzing aggression in Drosophila. Cold Spring Harb Protocols Mar 1;2012(3):319-2.

Burke, C.J., Huetteroth, W., Krashes, M.J., Perisse, E., Das, G., Gohl, D., Silies, M., Certel, S.J., and Waddell, S (2012). Layered reward signaling through octopamine and dopamine in Drosophila. Nature 492(7429):433-7.

Certel SJ, Leung A, Lin CY, Perez P, Chiang AS, Kravitz EA. (2010) Octopamine neuromodulatory effects on a social behavior decision-making network in Drosophila males. PLoS One. 2010 Oct 12;5(10):e13248.

Certel, S.J. and Kravitz, E.A. (2010). Studying Aggression in Drosophila. Drosophila Neurobiology Methods: A Laboratory Manual. Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory Press, Woodbury, NY.

Certel S.J., Savella M.G., Schlegel D.C.F. and Kravitz E.A. (2007) Modulation of Drosophila male behavioral choice. Proc. Nat. Acad. Sci.104(11) 4706-4711.?-highlighted in Cell Leading Edge (Cell 129(2):227).

Mundiyanapurath, S., Certel, S.J. and Kravitz, E.A. (2007) Studying aggression in Drosophila. Journal of Visualized Experiments, Second issue, online access at (,

Certel, S.J. and Thor, S. (2004) Regulation of Motor Axon Targeting by the Combinatorial Activity of POU and LIM-HD factors. Development 131(21):5429-39.

Certel, S.J., Clyne, P.J., Carlson, J.R. and Johnson, W.A. (2000) Regulation of central neuronsynaptic targeting by the Drosophila POU protein, Acj6. Development 127:2395-2405.

Clyne, P.J., Certel, S.J., de Bruyne, M., Zaslavsky, L., Johnson, W.A. and Carlson, J.R. (1999) The Odor Specificities of a Subset of Olfactory Receptor Neurons Are Goverened by Acj6, a POU-domain Transcription Factor. Neuron 22:339-347.

Anderson, M.G., Certel, S.J., Certel, K., Lee, T., Montell, D.J. and Johnson, W.A. (1996) Function of the Drosophila POU domain transcription factor, Drifter, as an upstream regulator of Breathless receptor tyrosine kinase expression in developing trachea. Development 122, 4169-4178.

Certel, S.J. and Johnson, W.A. (1996) Disruption of mesectodermal lineages by temporal misexpression of the Drosophila POU-domain transcription factor, drifter. Developmental Genetics 18:279-288.