Fruit flies: the scientist’s friend

By • Published: March 11th, 2009
Category: Health in a Heartbeat

Once again, the humble fruit fly may help researchers solve a devastating human problem.

Children with a rare, inherited disorder called mucolipidosis [mu″ko-lip″ĭ-do´sis] type four have profound mental and physical problems, often because the tissue that normally connects the two hemispheres of their brains fails to develop.

No cure exists. But Johns Hopkins researchers disabled the same gene in the flies that malfunctions in humans, thereby mimicking the disease.

The flies soon developed movement problems, just as people with the disease do, and scientists discovered that toxic waste was building up in their cells.

By introducing normal blood cells into the flies, the scientists averted further damage.

Now, researchers think that bone-marrow transplants might help children afflicted by this disease.

The fruit-fly finding is literally one of thousands that have contributed to medical science.

Another recent example: University of Rochester scientists discovered that fruit flies share a cellular defense pathway that has long been recognized in humans and other animals.

Researchers may soon be able to use this pathway in flies to inexpensively test antioxidant compounds for potential use in people.

And while the birds and the bees get all the credit, it is the fruit fly that gave us our understanding of sex-linked inheritance in genetics.

In fact, about one hundred years ago, a famous biologist named Thomas Morgan discovered through fruit-fly research that chromosomes carry our genetic material through the ages.

We don’t think Dr. Morgan would be a bit surprised that scientists are still buzzing about fruit-fly discoveries a solid century later.