Why Fruit Flies Will Save Our Lives

The Bloomington Drosophila Stock Center has maintained fruit fly strains for a quarter century and currently houses 40,000 genetically unique lines. More than 2,600 laboratories worldwide ordered strains from the center last year. Courtesy of Indiana University.

The beginning of most every experiment involving the genetics of human health begins with flies.

Several posts ago, I talked about how deleting small sections of the human brain had allowed researchers to create a sort of map that shows which areas are responsible for which functions. Along the way, I compared the brain mapping process to gene deletion experiments. What better way of figuring out what a gene does than by getting rid of it and seeing what happens?

Since 1987, the key species for these types of experiments has been Drosophila melanogaster – the common fruit fly. These annoying little pests come quite in handy when working with genetics. They breed quickly and often, allowing scientists to work fairly quickly through the genome.

And since 1987, scientists have gone to one place for their samples and information – the Bloomington Drosophila Stock Center of Indiana University.

Through the painstaking years, the Center has worked tirelessly to conduct gene knockout studies to effectively figure out what each and every gene does in the fly’s genome. Now, they’re pretty much done.

Indiana University recently reported that the Center has successfully completed gene deletion experiments on 98.4% of the fruit fly’s genome – a number that won’t get any higher. The remaining percentage deals with the fly’s ability to reproduce and grow, both essential ingredients to genetic knockout experiments.

Skeptical?

Let me put it this way. Our cells work in fundamentally the same way as a fly’s. Almost three-quarters of all known human disease genes have a match in the fruit fly genome. They have heart problems when they eat their equivalents of McDonalds, develop insulin resistance when fed soda and respond to pharmaceuticals. Research into mutations of their genes is providing insights into the molecular mechanisms of disorders like Alzheimer’s, Huntington’s, Lou Gehrig’s and Parkinson’s diseases and cancer, diabetes and epilepsy.

So just because the gene deletions are about done doesn’t mean there isn’t plenty of work to be done. Gene deletion studies are still important. Scientists can mutate one of the genes – say from the mother – and delete the other from the father. This allows them to see what specific mutations do to the health of the fly.

Plus, all of this breeding has created 40,000 different genetically characterized lines. Researchers from around the world ordered 215,000 living Drosophila samples in 2011 alone, with deletions being the highest in demand.

So, as you can see, there is still plenty to do. It’s just a rather cool milestone, and an excuse to get the word out about such a fundamentally important basic research center. The Bloomington Drosophila Stock Center will never announce that they’ve discovered the cure for cancer themselves, but you can bet that a ton of the studies that are contribution every day had their origins in the research conducted there.

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About bigkingken

A science writer dedicated to proving that the Big Ten - or the Committee on Institutional Cooperation, if you will - is more than athletics.
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