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.

Baking Bad

Disclaimer: The title of this entry is not representative of how pleasant baking and biomedical research are. Rather, it is a poor pun referencing “Breaking Bad” made by the author solely for the sake of the author’s amusement.

Many times before has science been likened to cooking, and protocols to recipes. I personally find biological research procedures to be much more like baking. Firstly, you can’t exactly sautée cells without potentially killing them. If you even attempt to “fry” your nucleic acid samples, consider all your proteins and DNA strands denatured. And if you find your cell cultures to be a perfect golden brown, there are way too many cells clumped together in that tiny space, and they need to be separated between new plates. Also, never steam any of your reagents, as they become utterly useless if not kept on ice.

So why would baking be a better analogy for biotechnological practices? Simple. You put stuff into a bowl (collection tube), mix your ingredients (reagents) all together by whisk (centrifuge machine) and wait for it to bake in the oven (incubator) for a long while. Afterward, your valiant efforts reward you with delicious cake — or rather, satisfactory (sometimes not) results for your research project.

Like baking, laboratory work is a hit or miss. One day you may have made the most heavenly soufflé with the perfect fluffiness to it. In lab, that day would be when your quantitative results show successful amplification of your complementary DNA samples. Another day, you may find that you didn’t add enough yeast to your cupcakes, and they droop down so sadly like the frown on your face upon seeing them. In lab, that day is when you don’t add enough yeast to your bacterial growth media, and you produce very few bacterial cells that possess your engineered gene of interest.

There is a secret to both baking and scientific research, however, that make a recipe become the magnum opus of the baker and the protocol the publication-worthy study of the scientist: improvisation. What does one do when the results aren’t coming out quite right? Add a little more of so-and-so to balance out whatever is the cause of a not-so-pleasant result. Try another method. Spoons were made for tasting, so why not try a smidge of that cookie dough to determine what is still missing?

But for the record, as similar as biomedical research is to baking, I would advise against eating anything in the lab given some poisonous, carcinogenic reagents, bacteria, and viruses you’ll likely be working with.