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!)

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!)

dna
 © 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.