Meet Your New Sibling! The…Fruit Fly?!

Imagine this. It’s Wednesday afternoon, and you’re sitting on the patio of Isla Vista’s Starbucks coffee shop, quietly sipping your cup of joe. Suddenly, you feel your phone buzz in your back pocket. As you answer the call, before you can even begin to utter a “Hello,” your mom bursts out exclaiming, “Honey! HUGE NEWS! Guess what? You have a new sibling!”

Sputtering out your drink, you feel your heart begin to race from the sudden shock, filled with either anxiety or excitement (or possibly both).

Your mom eagerly continues, “And she’s a fruit fly! Oh, isn’t this wonderful? You are going to LOVE her.”

A new sibling! This is…wait. Hold up. Did she just say…fruit fly?

Aren’t fruit flies those little pests that hover around and contaminate our fruit? With their tiny, pin sized heads and those buggy, large compound eyes, you two couldn’t possibly be siblings…right?

Directly-related siblings? Well no (you can breathe a sigh of relief), you aren’t blood related. But there’s more to this tiny, brilliant creature than what meets the eye. In actuality, Homo Sapiens and Drosophila Melanogaster share many common traits. Because of the vast amount of overlapping similarities, scientists have been able to apply and contribute Drosophila research to understanding human diseases, making leaps in biomedical advancements, and comprehending human behavior.

Two Peas in a Pod: The Human and Fruit Fly

Since the beginning of the 20th century, the fruit fly, or Drosophila Melanogaster, has been used as a model organism by scientists for research and genetic studies.  Flashback to your 6th grade biology course, you most likely learned about a man named Gregor Mendel, a good ol’ Austrian monk, who had a certain passion for gardening, especially when it came to pea plants. Mendel became the “father of modern genetics” by establishing the basic principles of heredity, such as the existence of dominant and recessive traits. However, Mendel’s work was just the beginning of understanding the concepts of inheritance and genetics.

Meet Thomas Hunt Morgan, the founding father of Drosophila research and American genetic studies (debatable, but let’s not go into that). Believing Mendel’s inheritance and Darwin’s natural selection claims to be utter nonsense, he began researching the fruit fly, mostly interested in its developmental mechanisms from fertilization to embryonic formation, only to discover that genes were being carried by chromosomes that were passed from one generation to the next. Supporting Mendel’s inheritance claims, Morgan radically (at the time) introduced the concept of sex-linked chromosomes, that certain characteristics were connected to the gender of the organism. Today, we now are able to identify traits as being female or male due to our little buddy, the fruit fly, and of course, Mr. Morgan and his trainees.

Now, 100 years later, Drosophila research has expanded immensely. In 2000, scientists were able to sequence its entire genome (complete genetic instructions on what’s needed to build, grow, and develop an organism). It has been established that because many human and fruit fly genes are so closely related, commonly, when a sequence for a human gene is newly discovered, it can be directly matched to its equivalent in the fruit fly. This includes human gene sequences that code for diseases; 75% of genes which cause human diseases can be found in Drosophila. Drosophila has played a leading role in in neurobiological investigations, for example, with ADHD and sleep disorders, and also biomedical research advancements, such as with developmental diseases and cancer. You being a bit of a “bugger” isn’t actually too bad. In fact, it’s very beneficial and valuable. However, these developments are only just the beginning. Despite coding Drosophila’s entire genome, scientists are still uncovering what exactly the phenotypes (outward observable characteristics) of these genes are. By revealing what these genes are specifically coding for and their impact on fly sensory physiology and behavior, we can then apply this data to humans in order to further understand why we function in a certain manner due to our genetic makeup.

900 Words Just for You, the Uncertain Undergrad

“So…lab. Are joining a lab? I know UCSB is a killer research university.” I grimaced as my friend, an upperclassmen studying Biochemistry at UC Davis, asks me for the fifth time.

“Well research really isn’t for me,” I quickly respond, diverting my eyes from the webcam.

His eyebrows crinkle together, concern painted on his face, “But you do know that the majority of biochemists go on to enter into either medical school or research. What else are you going to do after your undergraduate years?”

“I know, I know…but I just haven’t given it much thought. Look, I need to go. Studying is calling me. I’ll talk to you later?”

As I hung up, I swallowed down again the unease and nervousness bubbling from my stomach. It wasn’t that I hadn’t given much thought to my future; in fact, I had been grueling over it daily for the past few months ever since the first day I stepped onto the UCSB campus as a freshman Gaucho. I was frustrated with how reckless I had been when applying to colleges in my senior year of high school, quickly ticking off Biochemistry as my major choice on applications due to being influenced by friends’ STEM field choices, and hastily believing it would secure a financially stable job. However, now actually actively living the college life, I began to question if I could truly become happy and fulfilled if I pursued a career in medicine or research. I pictured running alongside my friends to a bright future, only to find myself slowly dragging behind and stumbling, desperately reaching and crying out for help. Everyone surrounding me seemed so sure as to what they wanted or expected in life, having a clear path paved in their minds, and taking the exact consecutive steps that would lead them to their desired goal. I knew realistically no one could really be 100% certain of what they were doing, just living their lives to the best of their abilities, but my uncertainty gnawed me from the inside out.

I didn’t want to disappoint my parents’ who toiled endlessly to support both my brother’s and my aspirations. This only increased my fear of making an incorrect choice. Which path would lead to certain success? Would I be able to stand out? Most importantly, would I be happy, and have a secure sense of purpose and fulfillment? I shied away from the medical path due to the cutthroat competitiveness of it, and I couldn’t find that natural drive of researchers to better understand reality and its mechanisms within myself. Thoroughly disgusted with how uncertain and unsure I was, and realizing I would never know which decision was “correct” without actually trying and experiencing firsthand, I decided to immerse myself in at least one experience that pertained to either the medical or research field to see if I enjoyed one or the other. And to my surprise…I did. It’s been barely three weeks since I have joined Dr. Craig Montell’s lab, working under the mentorship of Dr. Dhananjay Thakur, and I’m not only very relieved, but also ecstatic to admit that I’m falling in love with the daily routine of research.

Remember when your mom asked, “Did you learn anything new in school today?” And you usually rolled your eyes and grumbled back, “Nothing,” believing that school was a definite waste of your time and space (Unless you loved education, then I’m sorry for offending you). Once you step into a research lab, that “nothing” reply is totally thrown out the window. I say I love the “daily routine of research,” but each day in the lab is different from the last. Every day I discover and learn something new that’s amazing, surprising, or fascinating. And as expected, I’ve spent multiple, rigorous hours reading research papers. Many times, I would begin reading a paper, slowly following and understanding the context, assuring myself by thinking, “I’ve got this,” and then become suddenly utterly confused and lost. However, this lack of spontaneous understanding, rather than being discouraging, was in fact very motivating. Always loving a challenge, I began to work harder in an attempt to somehow prove my place in the lab, and wanted to contribute to the lab’s research and projects with my own capabilities. I began developing a thirst for understanding, asking questions even on what seemed the most trivial matters. However, no matter how trivial or insignificant the question seemed to be, I learned that asking questions not only ensured that I clarified my understanding to decrease the possibility of errors in the future, but most importantly, that I demonstrated my genuine interest in what I was learning or observing.

There’s a certain belief that labs or STEM fields in general are for those who dislike communicating. This is entirely untrue. I know for certain the Montell Lab is filled with friendly, fun individuals. Just this past Friday, we played beach volleyball on the Anacapa lawn, and ate Chinese dinner together due to one of our post-docs leaving from the team. The lab environment celebrates the efforts of all, working alongside one another and collaborating together, no matter how different each individual’s goal is. Not all moments in the lab are exciting or wondrous. And although this sounds cliché, each day is filled with ups and downs. Some moments are frustrating while others are disheartening, such as ruining an experiment setup repetitively or not receiving expected results. But if you put in the proper time, effort, and care into your research experience, you will be rewarded for your determination and hard work. I’m a bit frightened with how quickly I’m falling head-over-heels for research, but I’m definitely looking forward to the next upcoming weeks, anticipating not only strengthening my bonds with the lab, but also further developing my knowledge and skill sets.

Eating at Lucky Dragon with the Lab!