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The Role of the Fruit Fly in the Research of Human Disease

July 10, 2019

A very common pest in most of our homes, the fruit fly (Drosophila melanogaster), is one of the most important model organisms in scientific research. To date, no less than nine Nobel prizes have been awarded for research based on the fruit fly. 

So how do these simple flies provide us with so much relevant data for research?

About Drosophila melanogaster

You have no doubt seen fruit flies frequently in your kitchen, but could you describe its physical appearance in detail? Probably not – Here are few key facts about this little organism: 

      • It has a yellow-brown body with brick-red eyes and transverse black rings across the abdomen
      • Females are about 2.5mm long and the males are slightly smaller with a darker back

About animal models in research

Animals are important for scientists in biological research because they can replicate human diseases or abnormal behaviour (to a certain extent) without the ethical concerns involved with research in humans. Obviously, there are a lot of differences between humans and other animals but thanks to evolution we share a lot of molecular and cellular processes with other species – including the fruit fly.

Drosophila melanogasterin research

Although Drosophila melanogasterseems to be very different from us, an estimated 75% of human disease genes have a corresponding or identical gene in the fruit fly. These flies are used at all levels of biological research, but genetic research is where they really shine. The small genome of these flies makes genetic manipulation relatively easy. Furthermore, they have a short lifecycle and a huge number of offspring – important in genetic research, because new lineages are quick and easy to make. Making a new lineage of flies usually takes about 6-weeks and costs less than £250, whereas a new line of mice for example, takes months and can cost thousands of pounds. 

genetic research

Genetic research in Drosophila melanogaster

Over the years, fly researchers have developed an impressive number of genetic tools. These tools allow researchers to insert specific genes into a specific set of cells, or even activate or deactivate genes at a specific time. In this way, fly researchers can investigate gene function without affecting the fly’s general health. This is important when reproducing human diseases that target specific cell-types.

In conclusion, every animal model has its advantages and disadvantages for biological research. Scientists would never use a fruit fly to study complex behaviours or emotions. On the other hand, they would never want to use a monkey for genetic screening. The fruit fly is already used as a model for several human diseases, including Parkinson’s disease, Alzheimer’s disease, Fragile X syndrome and Rett’s syndrome.

So, the next time you see a fruit fly in your home, make sure to say, “thank you” before you chase it out.

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