Sarah  Certel

Contact Information

Personal Summary

Research in my lab focuses on understanding the principles of neuronal communication in the sexual dimorphic and aging nervous system.

Bilingual neurons:  We are interested in the coding capabilities of “bilingual” neurons; neurons that release more than one neurotransmitter. We use the glutamate+/octopamine(OA)+ co-transmitting neurons in the adult Drosophila brain to explore when, why and where the release of multiple neurotransmitters occurs from dual-transmitting neurons.  In recent discoveries, we have found the release location of glutamate vs. OA can differ in a single neuron (spatial segregation of neurotransmitter release), VGLUT levels are dynamic (aging properties), and glutamate+/OA+ neurons are molecularly and behaviorally sexually dimorphic. With this foundation, our current studies funded by the NIH are using cutting-edge genomic techniques to examine the molecular properties of aging bilingual neurons, advanced fluorescent imaging sensors to visualize and quantify neurotransmitter release, and high throughput behavioral assays to examine circuit output changes.  

Sexually dimorphic inter-organ signaling: we have discovered that glutamate+/OA+ neurons in the brain innervate the intestinal system suggesting that gut-brain communication uses co-transmitter coding. Like neurons, intestinal cells have an intrinsic sexual identity which must be actively maintained in adults, suggesting intestinal cells continually “need to know” whether they are male or female.  With funding from the Army Research Office, we are addressing the behavioral impact of sex-specific aspects of inter-organ communication by identifying: 1) variations in adrenergic and glutamatergic receptor expression, 2) brain neurons that receive aggression-promoting gut signals, and 3) transcriptome and behavioral responses to stress and bacterial metabolites.

Our work lies at the interface of genetics and neuroscience. We assess the consequences of co-transmission at the level of molecules (transcriptomics), cell activity (imaging), and whole animal (behavioral). With these approaches and others, our long-term goal is to understand how co-transmission is regulated during the lifetime of an animal, and the implication that this phenomenon has in the context of disease.


Postdoctoral Training, Harvard Medical School, 2000-2009

Ph.D. University of Iowa

M.A. University of Nebraska-Omaha

B.S. Evangel University

Courses Taught

BIOB 375 General Genetics (Spring)

NEUR 441 CNS Diseases (alternating Fall semesters)

NEUR 458 Neuroscience Research Techniques Lab (alternating Fall semesters)

Research Interests

See our lab webpage for more detailed information.

Field of Study

Behavioral Neuroscience


Inter-organ communication

Selected Publications

Catudio Garrett E, Bielawski A, Ruchti E, Sherer LM, IWaghmare I, Hess-Homeier D, McCabe BD, Stowers RS, and Certel SJ. The matricellular protein Drosophila CCN is required for synaptic transmission and female fertility. 2022, Genetics, under revision.

Certel SJ, McCabe BD, Stowers RS. A conditional gabaergic synaptic vesicle marker for Drosophila. J Neurosci Methods. 2022 Apr 15;372:109540. doi: 10.1016/j.jneumeth.2022.109540. Epub 2022 Feb 24. PMID: 35219770

Certel SJ, Ruchti E, McCabe BD, Stowers RS. A conditional glutamatergic synaptic vesicle marker. G3 (Bethesda). 2022 Mar 4;12(3):jkab453. doi: 10.1093/g3journal/jkab453. PMID: 35100385

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.


When not in the lab or classroom, I can be found watching a Red Sox game or hiking with my son and dog.