Shoo fly…no wait, come back!

I recently had the good fortune to find myself chatting with our Curator of Anthropology, Dirk Van Tuerenhout, about everything from the baby woolly mammoth mummy to why flies are used in genetic research. The latter of these two really got me off on an overly-excited tangent as genetics is the subject in which I hold my degree. I decided then and there to blog about the fascinating, the miniscule, the dapper dipteran…Drosophila melanogaster (the fruit fly!)

 © Photo credit: Image Editor

Fruit flies have been used as a genetic model since about 1910 for a number of reasons. One of these is that they have only 4 pairs of chromosomes, which makes it easy to track mutations, for one. Also, the fruit fly’s genome has been completely sequenced since 2000. Lastly, they are relatively inexpensive and very easy to breed and maintain, and their morphology (the way they look) is easily seen with the naked eye.

I can vividly recall my first year in basic genetics lab. We had to do all manner of experiments with genes and inheritance, and we spent a significant chunk of time doing experiments with these fruit flies. Every lab table in the class got two kinds of flies to cross and see what the resulting offspring looked like. The two my partner and I received were the female wild types, just think of them as normal, red-eyed fruit flies, and the mutant dumpy wing males, which have tiny wings. Because the dumpy wing mutant cannot fly, they had an extra-difficult time mating with the females, which were fully able to fly, albeit in a 4’x1’plastic tube. We decided we felt sorry for the men of the tube and decided to offer our ‘matchmaking’ services. Really all that meant was us singing ‘selections from Marvin Gaye’s Greatest Hits to a tube of flies in a serious, crowded-yet-quiet genetics laboratory at Texas A&M. The TA got a huge kick out of it and our boys ended up as successful as the rest of the flies in the room that day! The females laid their eggs and our experimentation continued. (Side note: See! There is NO reason science has to be stuffy!)

 © Photo credit: Ynse

 One of the most fascinating things about this type of research is that some Drosophila genes have homologs (genes with structural and functional likenesses) in other animals, even vertebrates like humans! My two favorites of these in Drosophila are the singed bristle gene (structural) and the Notch gene (functional). The singed bristle gene makes actin filaments cross link, the same as in human muscles. Remember, actin in humans’ muscles is imperative in allowing them to contract and move us along!

The Notch gene is involved in cellular communication in both flies and humans. This gene is the basis for development, immunity, tissue repair -basically, your cells can’t do their jobs without it. Problems with cell communication lead to diseases like cancer and even diabetes. Also, by studying and understanding the way cells talk to each other, we can offer more effective treatments and may one day be able to grow artificial tissue!!! Imagine the potential…all made possible because of legions of devoted researchers and the genes of a tiny fly.

Woolly mammoths to walk the earth again?

Thats right. Those giant, tusked behemoths could one day soon walk among us again. Maybe I should start at the beginning.

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© Photo credit: Florent Herry

In 2007, a reindeer breeder in the Yamal Peninsula of Siberia named Yuri Khudi discovered a one month old baby woolly mammoth. The baby mammoth, dubbed Lyuba, is roughly 40,000 years old and almost perfectly preserved (missing only her fur and toenails.) Lyuba either suffocated by sinking in mud or drowned in a muddy river.

Large amounts of mud were found in her mouth, trunk and trachea, suggesting that she asphyxiated. This sealed out oxygen and microbes that normally break down soft tissue and helped keep Lyuba perserved. Her body then dehydrated and shrunk to about half of her normal size. Lyuba now stands about waist high on the average person. The permafrost of Siberia then covered her and kept her in pristine condition until she was uncovered 40,000 years later.

Interested? So was National Geographic. They created a documentary about Lyula, the best-preserved baby mammoth ever discovered. Waking the Baby Mammoth premieres this Sunday, April 26, at 8 p.m. Central time, and follows Yuri’s amazing find and the fascinating process of discovery as scientists work to unravel Lyula’s mysteries.  (Check out the video preview below)They investigate the body of the mammoth, learning how she briefly lived and theorizing how she died. The documentary includes CGI graphics that help show how Lyuba and her family might have looked as they survived the harsh conditions of Siberia during the ice age.

Some other things you might not know about wooly mammoths:

The word “mammoth” is thought to have originated from an old Vogul word for “earth.”

Woolly Mammoths began dying out about 10,000 years ago, around the end of the ice age. A small population of dwarfed mammoths survived in Alaska until roughly 3,700 years ago; however, the majority died out long before then.

The first largely intact frozen mammoth carcass was discovered in 1799 in Siberia.

One of the longest mammoth tusks ever found was 16 feet long and weighed more than 200 pounds.

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Mammoths are very closely related to the Asian Elephant (they share 99.4 percent of their DNA.) It is possible to take the sperm from a mammoth and impregnant the egg of an elephant, and use a female elephant to incubate. This would give birth to a mammoth/elephant hybrid.

From there, it would be possible to impregnate the hybrid to create an offspring that was even more closely related to the ancient mammoths. In a similar process, you could also take a woolly mammoth egg and clone it to create  a woolly mammoth.

The woolly mammoth genome was the first genome to be reconstructed from an extinct animal It has 4.7 billion base pairs and is the largest known mammal genome.