From kitchen pest to scientific hero: the enormous research value of fruit flies

Fruit flies can be really annoying when they buzz around your living room or land in your wine. But we have these little nuisances a lot to thank because they have revolutionized biological and medical science.

Flies and mosquitoes both belong to the Diptera, the group of insects that have only two wings (from the Greek di meaning two, and pteron meaning wing). However, just as most people are accepting of their friends’ annoying and positive traits, we shouldn’t judge flies by their negative behavior alone.

We should wake up to their enormous economic and environmental importance, as entomologist Erica McAlister argues in her book The secret life of flies. For example, many plants (including the cocoa plant that gives us chocolate) rely on Diptera as pollinators. Or try to imagine a world without flies to decompose dead animals.

I’ll argue from a different angle, though, to win your respect for one specific diptera: the fruit or vinegar fly (Drosophila melanogaster).

Drosophila it may be smaller than a fingernail but can be a big nuisance in summer when it hovers over ripening fruit or emerges in swarms from baskets. The species Drosophila it was first mentioned by the German entomologist Johann Meigen in 1830 and has since earned a celebrity status among scientists.

It has become the best known animal organism on the planet and a powerhouse of modern medical research. Ten scientists at work Drosophila have received a Nobel Prize in physiology or medicine.

Science’s collaboration with flies began in the early 1900s when biologist Thomas Hunt Morgan of Columbia University in New York decided to test evolutionary theories, such as how genetic mutations are linked to other characteristics, and rediscovered in 1900 of Gregor Mendel’s theories of heredity, published 1865. Mendel remains today the recognized father of genetics.

Helping science take off

Morgan wasn’t the first to work with Drosophila. But his idea of ​​exploiting the cheap breeding of the fly (pieces of banana stored in bottles of milk) and rapid reproduction (one generation in about ten days; about 100 eggs per female per day) would make it possible to study evolution in laboratory. This is because it is easier to see evolutionary changes in large populations of a species with a high turnover.

His mass breeding experiments with hundreds of thousands of flies resulted in the discovery of a single fly with white eyes, instead of the red eyes that fruit flies normally have.

Subsequent studies by Morgan and his team of his white-eyed offspring revealed that genes can mutate and are organized in ordered, reproducible maps on chromosomes (a long DNA molecule).

This new understanding founded the field of classical genetics as we know it. For example, it has led to an understanding of how genetic disease is inherited.

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In the 1940s, scientists including George Beadle and Edward Tatum established that certain gene codes for proteins can facilitate chemical reactions and produce the molecules needed in cells.

Other researchers with fruit flies have mapped the structure of the DNA helix. Thanks to these developments, long-debated issues have come to light. For example, how genes regulate complex biological processes, such as the development of an entire organism from a single fertilized egg cell.

Scientists have gradually established techniques using microscopes to study Drosophila embryos in their tiny 0.5mm clear eggshells. The plethora of genetic strategies we have learned in flies has turned into a powerful tool for analyzing the mechanisms of fly development.

Just as human genetic mutations can cause bodily malformations in people, fly embryos also exhibit such defects. For example, the head or tail is missing.

Scientists can study mutant defects, even if the eggs never hatch, which can then inform us about the normal function of the affected gene.

These types of genetic studies of Drosophilacombined with emerging technologies, such as gene cloning, it has helped us understand how genetic networks can determine the development of a body and how they can sometimes cause hereditary diseases.

Gene networks are a set of genes, or parts of genes, that interact with each other to control a specific cellular function. In 1995, three scientists won the Nobel Prize for their contributions to this new understanding.

A striking resemblance

Ultimately, it emerged that the entire genomes of flies and humans showed striking similarities, and that mechanisms or processes discovered in flies often turned out to be applicable to more complex organisms. Many human genes can even take over the function of their own Drosophila equivalent when inserted into the fly genome.

The common ancestor that founded the lineages of flies and humans half a billion years ago appears to have had such a well-designed biology that many of its aspects are still retained, such as growth mechanisms or neuronal function.

Because we are so similar genetically, many aspects of human biology and disease have been explored first Drosophila. Meanwhile, fruit fly research is fast, cheap and extremely versatile. It is ideal for scientific discoveries.

Once knowledge has been gained in a fly, that knowledge can accelerate research in more complex organisms. Today it is estimated that they work with over 10,000 researchers worldwide Drosophila in many areas of science involving human biology and disease.

It is used by neuroscientists to study learning, memory, sleep, aggression, addiction and neural disorders. Not to mention cancer and aging, developmental processes, the gut microbiome, stem cells, muscles and the heart.

That said, flies are not mini-humans. They cannot be used to study the personality loss seen in Alzheimer’s disease, for example. But they can be used to study why neurons die in such diseases and fill in important gaps in our understanding of this type of disease.

Fruit flies floating around your kitchen might be irritating, but hopefully, now you’re seeing them in a different light.The conversation

Andreas Prokop, Professor of Cellular and Developmental Neurobiology, University of Manchester

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

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