Scientific Discoveries Starting with a Fruit Fly

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(An ode to my first model organism)

Upon first glance, a fruit fly may seem like nothing more than a nuisance hanging around your backyard eating up homegrown produce, or a ghastly creature that makes you scream in fear as it whizzes past your face. Despite its uncharming reputation, this seemingly insignificant fly has been used for over a century in biomedical research.

Fruit flies are known for their conservation of human genes. Approximately 75% of the genes that are responsible for human disease are also found in these unsightly critters. The genetic resemblance allowed for scientists such as Donald Poulson, senior research biologist at Yale University, to uncover the “NOTCH1” gene in 1915. 

Both a tumor suppressor and promoter, NOTCH1 helps regulate cell division and survival. Poulson studied its mutations and the resulting phenotypes such as abnormal wing development and a hypertrophied nervous system.

Upon its inspection in humans, NOTCH1 cloning soon became linked to leukemia and today its mutations account for upto 13% of all chronic lymphocytic leukemia cases. Since digging up NOTCH1, researchers have focused their attention on creating inhibitors of its pathway and reaching a promising treatment for leukemia and other types of cancer.

In 1927, Hermann Joseph Muller, a well-known geneticist and Nobel prize winner, conducted a series of experiments to demonstrate the power of X-ray irradiation in manipulating genes. These high-energy electromagnetic waves create double-stranded breaks in DNA to either allow for mistakes to occur or slip in excess DNA during the repair process. 

In his experiments, Muller cross-bred X-ray-exposed flies and observed mutations through genetic markers such as eye color. 1,705 fly cultures later, he found that there was a much higher frequency of lethal mutations in the X-ray group than the control. His early discovery opened the door to air out the dangers of radiation exposure, introduce radiation as a new technique to produce transgenic organisms and step into a more knowledgeable future. 

In the twenty-first century, fruit flies continue to be a powerful underdog in the medical research world. Although lacking several basic organ systems and admirability, they prove to be the perfect vessels for students at Heritage including myself to study biological processes.

Incoming sophomore research students, Emma Delgado (right) and Iris Fan (left), observing one of Emma’s culture of fruit flies. She comments sarcastically, “Wow look at that squeaky clean fly culture.” (Photo/Lauren Wong)

In the past, students used these pesky flies to elucidate the effects of caffeine on Parkinson’s disease, a neurodegenerative disorder. In today’s research lab, you can find fly-based projects which seek to understand how sexual orientation affects drug response and how exhaled gases can reveal the presence of rheumatic diseases.

All is to say, the little trash trolls that we often swat away without a second thought have been some of the most versatile research subjects for the past century.

Now a current junior, this is Lauren’s first year writing for the Patriot Post, and she couldn’t be more excited to get started. She enjoys anything and everything science related, playing Papa’s Sushiria, and critiquing movies like it’s her job. She can’t wait to stretch out her horizons and try new forms of writing!