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10 Reasons to Thank the Fruit Fly: Insights into Human Disease

Updated on January 17, 2013
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Copyright 2012 - Kris Heeter, Ph.D. (Reprinting, copying or reproducing this article in part or in full online or offline is prohibited.)


For well over a century now, some scientists have devoted their entire careers to understanding what most of us would consider pesky little flies – the fruit fly.

Yes, those annoying little flies that hitch a ride in on your fruit and that seem to rapidly appear out of nowhere.

Why in the world would any “sane” scientist want to study a fruit fly all of his/her life?

And, why should you care?

I’ll share 10 reasons why you should care and why you might begin looking at these annoying, buzzing, in-your-face, pests in a whole new appreciative light.


Drosophila egg

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A Century of Fruit Fly Research

Fruit flies (genus Drosophila) have been studied for well over a hundred years. Their genome or genetic information was the first to be sequenced (decoded).

The little guys are easy to manipulate and breed. Scientists can easily induce mutations or make genetic changes to study the outcomes.

But why would someone want to spend so much time mutating a fly and breeding it?

It turns out that the fruit fly is a model for many human diseases.

It’s very hard and time consuming to study genetic changes in humans. And ethically there are, of course, limitations.

Fruit flies can get many of the same types of diseases as humans. Many of the genes that contribute to these diseases are conserved between humans and fruit flies.

Most people don’t care if fruit flies are mutated and killed in the name of science. So, for decades, scientists have been mutating them on a large scale in controlled environments to learn more about the genes involved in human diseases.

Over the time, this has unveiled some very interesting insights into human diseases.


Fighting flies

How has fruit fly touched your life?

If you or a loved one have been affected by one more of the diseases listed, you can thank a fruit fly for some of the insights that have lead to understanding of these diseases.

1. Alzheimer’s Disease (AD) – yes, fruit flies can get AD and it can be measured and documented in a fly.

2. Parkinson’s Disease – fruit flies have emerged as a very valuable model organism to study both toxin-induced and genetically linked Parkinson’s.

3. Cancer – flies get cancer too.

4. Epilepsy – new research coming out shows that certain genetic mutations can induce epileptic seizures in flies.

5. Heart Disease - heart function can be studied in Drosophila. The fly's cardiac performance, like that of humans, has been shown to deteriorate with age and is now a model for human heart-related diseases.

6. Diabetes - fruit flies have paved the way for understanding insulin resistance.

7. Aggression and Mental Disease – fruit flies have become a model system for looking at the neuronal changes associated with aggression psychological diseases in humans.

8. Muscular Dystrophy – Drosophila are being used to characterize the mutations affecting neuromuscular function.

9. Kidney disease – flies can develop kidney stones (ouch!)

10. Obesity – flies have provided a great model for looking at the balance of energy intake and expenditure.

Studying a genetically tractable system like Drosophila gives scientists great insights to the basic processes underlying the onset and progression of diseases.

As I sit here as one of the scientists at the 53rd Annual Drosophila Research Conference, listening to latest coming out of the pipeline, I’m still in awe over how much these little guys have taught us over the past 100+ years!


Recent Fruit Fly and Human Disease Research

Catch some of the latest research using fruit flies as human disease models here (last updated June 28, 2012):

Fruit Flies Develop Insulin Resistance: Scientists at Southern Methodist University have recently shown that fruit flies fed too much protein and carbohydrates developed insulin resistance, gained weight and had a shorter life span.

This induced insulin resistance, a hallmark sign of Type 2 diabetes, allows scientists to easily study aspects of diabetes and other metabolic induced problems that result from overeating using the fruit fly.

Fruit Flies used as a model for studying Lou Gerhig's Disease or ALS

Recent research from the John Hopkins University School of Medicine has shown that when fruit flies are engineered to contain mutations in specific proteins that transport cargo (nutrients, etc.) within cells, the flies show a disruption in transport and cargo accumulates at nerve endings over time. The end result is disease that is analogous to ALS (Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis - a.k.a. Lou Gerhig's Disease) in humans.

This finding will allow researchers to study ALS more efficiently in the future and to provides an understanding of the genetics associated the disease.

Fruit flies used to identify two genes associated with Down Syndrome congenital heart defects

Congenital heart defect is the major cause of infant mortality in individuals with Down syndrome. Using the power of genetics in fruit flies, researcher have been able to identify two genes, when "over expressed" or are turned on at elevated levels, can disrupt cardiac development and function.


Sample References - Drosophila as a Model for Human Diseases:

Chan and Bonini. 2000. Drosophila models of human neurodegenerative disease. Cell Death and Differentiation. Vol 7: 1075-1080.

Chartier et al. 2006. A Drosophila model of oculopharyngeal muscular dystrophy reveals intrinsic toxicity of PABPN1. The EMBO Journal. Vol 25: 2253 - 226.

Ocurr et al. 2007. Age-related Cardiac Disease Model of Drosophila.Mech Age Dev; Vol.128: 112–116.


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    • Kris Heeter profile image
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      Kris Heeter 5 years ago from Indiana

      @Chuck - you are right, many doctors and nurses would be out of jobs if everyone was healthy. Thanks for adding to the discussion!

      The high levels of obesity, diabetes, cancer and other diseases are mostly attributed to population lifestyle changes over the last 100 years and the little fruit fly is helping test that.

      In "our" quest to have easier lifestyles and ready-to-eat meals over the years, we've introduced a number of chemicals in our food and exposed ourselves to more toxins from the environment and every day household products. We are literally changing our DNA and increasing the frequency of disease. Making our lives easier has in many respects has made us a more unhealthy society!

    • Chuck Bluestein profile image

      Chuck Bluestein 5 years ago from Morristown, AZ, USA

      It looks like some have been barking up the wrong tree (I think that is how the saying goes). After 100 years of researching the fruit fly, we now have the highest levels ever of obesity and diabetes. Unless their goal was to learn how to get more people to get them so they can have more customers. If everyone were healthy, then doctors and nurses would be out of jobs.

    • tsmog profile image

      Tim Mitchell 5 years ago from Escondido, CA

      Cool! Who would have figured. Thanks Kris! Not only am I going to say thank you to a few of those buggers, but today at work I will be like the contest a know-it-all. :)

    • SanneL profile image

      SanneL 5 years ago from Sweden

      I'll never look at a fruit fly the same way again after reading this fascinating hub. Who would've known we have so many similarities together! Another interesting and informative hub from you. Voted up and shared!

    • Deepak Chaturvedi profile image

      Deepak Chaturvedi 5 years ago from New Delhi, India

      nice and informative hub.

    • Melis Ann profile image

      Melis Ann 5 years ago from Mom On A Health Hunt

      The things you learn browsing HubPages! I didn't know the extent to which fruit flies were studied.

    • Kris Heeter profile image
      Author

      Kris Heeter 5 years ago from Indiana

      @m0rd0r - it's amazing how quickly an infestation can start! Each species of the fruit fly is attracted more to some fruits and spices over others. Each seems to have a different preference.

      @teaches12345 - the theme song was a nice tough to that video. A great sense of humor on the part of the scientists!

      @CCahill - I cringe too at the thought of eating the eggs. While I keep reminding myself it's just a lot of protein, it's still an unpleasant thought!

    • CCahill profile image

      CCahill 5 years ago from England

      Interesting cheers, i do hate them though, it really makes me cringe to thing that i might eat their eggs when eating fruit

    • teaches12345 profile image

      Dianna Mendez 5 years ago

      We owe a lot to these small creatures. I was amazed to learn that we have similar structure with this fly. The fighting flies video was cute. I think the Rocky theme song makes it so enjoyable. I will look forward to the hub on flies and cancer. Voted up!

    • m0rd0r profile image

      Stoill Barzakov 5 years ago from Sofia, Bulgaria

      Very interesting indeed.

      I am sorry to say - I am exterminating fruit flies on sight.

      Some of the spices boxes get infested when I fertilize with compost and the whole house gets populated by them.

      Did not knew they can be useful.

      Voted up.

    • Kris Heeter profile image
      Author

      Kris Heeter 5 years ago from Indiana

      @somethgblue - many of these diseases are not really modern. Cancer, for example, has been around for centuries. The incidence rate though has increased significantly in the last few decades. It's only been with recent advancements in science that the understanding that some of the very basic mechanisms underlying these diseases have been found to be similar between Drosophila and humans.

    • Kris Heeter profile image
      Author

      Kris Heeter 5 years ago from Indiana

      @thesingernurse and @JKenny - I'm glad you found the information useful and thanks for sharing:)

    • somethgblue profile image

      somethgblue 5 years ago from Shelbyville, Tennessee

      Would you consider all of these diseases modern in so much as they seem to correlate nicely with fruit fly research?

      Interesting wouldn't you say that that fruit flies get many of the same diseases that humans get . . . is this a coincidence?

      Our DNA is very similar you could test a disease on a fruit fly to see if it would work on a human or is it the other way around?

      I would suggest that perhaps the point was missed . . . !

    • JKenny profile image

      James Kenny 5 years ago from Birmingham, England

      Cool hub. I never knew fruit flies could contract so many of the same diseases we can. I'll never look at one the same way again. Thanks very much for sharing. Voted up and shared.

    • thesingernurse profile image

      thesingernurse 5 years ago from Rizal, Philippines

      Wow! This hub is awesome. I never hated them, though I never really take a while to revel upon their existence. Now, I'd be more honored to have them around. hahaha! thank you very much Ms. Kris, Another useful and informative hub from you. Voted up and shared!