People Zachary V. Johnson, Ph.D.

Zachary V. Johnson, Ph.D.

NIH NRSA Postdoctoral Fellow
School of Biological Sciences, Georgia Institute of Technology
Krone Engineered Biosystems Building, 3103

I completed my Ph.D. at Emory University in Dr. Larry Young’s laboratory, where I used optogenetic, neuroendocrine, and genetic techniques to study neural activity during social contexts. After grad school I started my postdoc in the Streelman and McGrath labs, where I study the evolution of social behavior in Lake Malawi cichlids. These fishes are an evolutionary marvel, having explosively radiated into ~1,000 species in just ~1 million years, making Lake Malawi the most species rich (fish) body of fresh water on Earth. These species differ strikingly in morphology, color patterning, and behavior, yet their genomes differ only ~2.5x more than individual humans on average.

I study the neurogenetic basis of bower building, a remarkable behavior exhibited by ~200 sand-dwelling Malawi species. In these species, reproductive cues trigger males to construct large courtship structures or “bowers” in the sand. Depending on the species, males dig crater-like pits, or build mountain-like castles. By studying these species, I hope to understand how a small number of genetic differences can cause nervous systems to respond differently to similar sets of social cues. I spend most of my time working with a talented team of undergraduates, post-baccalaureate researchers, Master’s students, and Ph.D. students to develop cutting-edge tools for studying the biology and evolution of bower building, including depth sensing, computer vision, machine learning, and brain single nuclei sequencing.

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To see a list of my recent publications, visit my Google Scholar Page