Friday, February 13, 2009

Three cheers for the little guy....

Now, I have something to admit. Some of you may be shocked and dismayed, and perhaps even amazed by my admonition. I work with fruit-flies, and it makes me very happy.... More than that I have to say I even love these little critters.

There, I said it.... I have come clean.

Of course when I say I work with fruit flies, what I mean to say is I work with that particular little guy which is sometimes called the vinegar fly, pomace fly, or with its scientific name, Drosophila melanogaster which loosely translates to "black bellied dew lover". Yes, I mean that dreaded fly who you had to work with in high school biology, and may still haunt you when you fail to rinse out old wine or beer bottles. That little fly.

Why on earth would I say I love these little guys? Am I just one more really strange scientist? Well, I like to think that while I may be a bit quirky, I am not quite that much of an oddball. The truth is, that the love I feel for these little fruit flies is not that of a spouse, or parent or child, but the love of something whose very nature can transform the way that we think of the world.

Oh, so very hokey, I know. However, over the past decade or so that I have worked with Drosophila, I have been truly amazed by the insights we can gain from little more than a small microscope, some mushy bananas and a paint brush. Now this may surprise some people, but I consider myself a little bit of a Luddite. Clearly I can use a computer, well enough, and I even know how to set my DVR (but apparently so does my 3 and half year old...), but when it comes to the rapid changes that are happening in methodologies and technologies in the biological sciences, I have to admit I am a bit of a slowpoke.

Yet, many of the most amazing discoveries made using fruit-flies have been done using basically the same technology as was used in the early 20th century when these first became a "model" for studies in genetics. Basically we play match maker for the fruitflies, and then wait to see what happens. Are their offspring normal, do they have wacky abnormalities? We then go about figuring out what these wacky abnormalities do, and how they are caused.

Ok, so I am oversimplifying. There is a lot more than that. However, what is true is that it is people doing the work (us mad scientists to the rest of y'all) that spend lots of time thinking about how best to do the match-making (what we call genetic crosses). Indeed over a decade ago the Nobel prize was won by three fly geneticists who thought carefully about how to study early development of an organism, how best to set up these crosses and look for abnormalities. The work that they did with not much more than the flies, and some microscopes laid the foundation for almost everything we know about the genetic basis of early development, including in humans.

So as long as you are observant and reasonably patient, you too can be a fruit-fly geneticist!!!

These approaches were then fine tuned to discover literally thousands of other genes, and in particular the use of what are called sensitization screens have found many genes that we now know can contribute to various aspects of human cancers. Pretty impressive work for a little fruit-fly.

Now with the amazing technological and methodological breakthroughs some scientists suggest we are entering the "post-genomic era". What this means is that as it has become much less expensive to find out all letters and words (the genes) of DNA in an organism. These fragments of DNA that are sequenced (our words) can be fed into super-computers (using some very cool computer programs) to reconstruct these words into the sentences, paragraphs, chapters and ultimately the book that is the "genome" of any animal, plant or microbe we want.

Given these breakthroughs, there have been some suggestions that the original model organisms (like the fruit-fly) will become less useful, despite all of the tools and data that has been gathered. That is we will be find out many of the same things in other species, that are perhaps nearer and dearer to our hearts, or at least are nicer to look at. Yet, I do not think the time of the fly has passed. I suspect that Drosophila will continue to claim the hearts of a new generation of scientists, and I imagine that it still has a trick or two to teach us all!

1 comment:

  1. well said...i am also completely in love with fruitflies, just that my love is for more than 1 species!!! much we get to learn from them, how many more mysteries they will help us solve and also keep throwing at us..i wonder...but, that's the beauty of a living model system...unpredictability and trying to figure out how and why we got these unpredictable results... nice entry