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Six Nobel prizes – what’s the fascination with the fruit fly? (theguardian.com)
19 points by Hooke 7 days ago | hide | past | web | 16 comments | favorite

They are called model organisms or model animals. Basically, when you want to study something in biology, the classical route to test on organisms is this:

- E.Coli, a bacterium

- C.Elegans, a simple nematode (worm) with 1031 cells

- Drosophilia, fruit flies

- Laboratory mice

These organisms are very well known and are possibly even more known than humans. They can be bred quickly. We know their genetic lines perfectly, you can order some with specific mutations activated.

It is not necessary optimal picks, there is a lot of history behind these choices. The thing is, if you want to check an effect on a real organism, we know very well how these normally react so spotting small variations in growth, metabolism or behavior is easy. They are the benchmarks of biology.

You found a molecule that kills cancer cells? Congratulations! Check first that it does not harm E.coli normal metabolism. Check it works on C.Elegans, make sure that fruit flies are still fertile, fly normally, etc...

You didn't explain why those organisms are the best to study in genetics. The poor article did neither. The others did.

citing @holograham:

> 60% DNA shared with humans + 4 chromesomes for easy mutation tracking + 2 week reproductive cycle for fast generation studying + easy to house/keep alive = great lab specimens to test genetic mutations

In addition to that:

* Some chromosomes, the ones in the salivary gland of the drosophila melanogaster are huge. Much easier to study under the microscope.

* Most important being the very short mutation cycle: 10 days.

* Very easy to see mutated phenotypes. 4 chromosomes -> eye color, wing size, ...

There were very good reasons Meigen 1830 and Castle 1901 picked them from the very beginning on.

The article didn't even get the most basic numbers right. It were 8 nobel prizes so far based on drosophila research, not 6.

1. Morgan 33

2. Müller 46

3. Beadle, Tatum 56

4. Delbrück, Hershey, Luria 69

5. Lewis, Nusslein-Volhard, Wieschaus 95

6. Axel, Buck 04

7. Hoffman, Beutler, Steinmann 11

8. Hall, Rosbash, Young 17


I also thought zebrafish we're also considered at the same level of "popularity" as the choices you've listed but I don't actually know for a fact if they are.

TLDR: 60% DNA shared with humans + 4 chromesomes for easy mutation tracking + 2 week reproductive cycle for fast generation studying + easy to house/keep alive = great lab specimens to test genetic mutations

> easy to house/keep alive

But, unless this has changed recently, impossible to preserve without housing them and keeping them alive. You can freeze cell lines, nematode worms, and vertebrate sperm and eggs, but there's no analogous technique for fruitflies. Once you've made a useful mutant, if you want to keep it, some poor graduate student is going to have to keep flipping those flies forever.

That 60% shared DNA metric is rather misleading. But, yeah, flies are an amazing tool for studying biological processes, from the simple to the complex.

It's striking how useful they were when we really new very little about how the information of life was encoded and how they continue to be a powerful and relevant model system for studying more complex aspects of biology, such as the brain e.g. https://www.janelia.org/lab/rubin-lab .

Oh little fruit flies, how I love thee! We had to keep fruit flies and track mutations in my intro to genetics course. We would put them on these little fabric platforms and pump CO2 through the fabric. This would anesthetize them so we could look at them under a microscope and count things like how many had white eyes, deformed wings, etc. They really are the workhorse of genetic studies...they should build a statue of a fruit fly next to the monument to the laboratory mouse!

I used to date a biologist who experimented with animals, primarily zebrafish. And she said they chose these creatures for quite a few reasons:

1. When genetic mapping was expensive, they were some of the first mapped.

2. They procreate quickly. Faster reproduction cycles means quicker experiments.

3. Because they were some of the first, more biologists have more experiments with these genomes. So faster and more advanced work can commence.

4. Nobody complains about experiments with what effectively amounts to insects and minnows (yes, I know zebrafish aren't - im going after the sentiment here).

> I know zebrafish aren't

Actually, they are part of the minnow family (Cyprinidae). Some, restrict it to smaller fish in the subfamily Leuciscinae, but there is no single minnow species/genus making the term somewhat ambiguous.

Was the choice to map their genomes early made on account of them already being widely used?


Fruit fly is a facinated tool for study genetics. And many of those study it was in Morgan’s lab or follow the linage. Fruit fly has a big role in genetics, development, and other field of studies. Actually a lot of the pioneering work of neurodevelopment is from fruit fly. And those early fly guys made interesting, light-tone names of genes which kind of lost in present academic culture.

Since there might never be a more relevant time to mention it, there's a fantastic book called The Fly Trap by a Swedish biologist, Fredrik Sjoberg, detailing his decades of studying flies on a small Swedish island. It's in the mold of Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, and is a great read that I can't recommend enough.

I read somewhere that we share 50% of our DNA with bananas and 96% with monkeys. I'm always blown away whenever I read these stats. It gives a sense of how much more complex life is than what it appears.

Consider that there is something akin the glibc in our genomes: the basic library that allows to extract energy from food and to construct all the building blocks of cells.

Similarities are easier to see once you realize that all organisms (including us) are just a bunch of cells who decided to stick together.

“What is true for E. coli is also true for the elephant.”

― Jacques Monod

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