"We have done genetic interventions and think we are close to having genetic access," he said.
It's not the first project to use the dragonfly as a model for flight. Atlanta-based TechJet has designed and built a robot dragonfly. A spinoff firm from Oxford University is partnering with Britain's defense ministry on the "Skeeter" hovering drone that mimics the dragonfly's movements; while Harvard's Microrobotics Lab has built a "robo-bee."
Other groups are also controlling animal movement through "optogenetics" or inserting genes from the eye into parts of the brain that control movement. The brain cells, or neurons, can then be controlled with pulses of blue light, which then result in animal movement.
A Yale University team recently announced it could turn an ordinary mouse into a ferocious hunter using this method.
At HHMI, Leonardo is using a dragonfly because it has defined movement patterns in flight, and because it has big neurons which are easy to work with in the lab.
"The advantage we have in dragonflies is that we think we have found a very special class of neurons that implements sophisticated steering, much like the remote controller of a drone, for a specific behavior - prey capture," he said. "The specificity of these neurons to prey capture is important. What I think we can do is show that these neurons will drive specific steering maneuvers during prey capture flights - maneuvers we control."