I hadn’t really thought much about Sarah Palin’s ridiculous comment about how we should stop spending money on fruit fly research. It was laughable and there were any number of rebuttals presented at the time that showed her for the ignorant boob she is. But I have of late been spending my train rides to and from work listening to a course from MIT that I downloaded from iTunes University on genetics with the incredibly enjoyable instructor, Eric Lander. It’s an introductory course, and it occurred to me that probably most people do not know just how important fruit fly research is. So I figured I’d comment.
It’s not just autism, folks. Yes, in the clip above we see people arguing about the fact that fruit fly research has been integral to the understanding of genetics as a science. People, you see, make a decidedly crappy study medium. With fruit flies, you can control what males and females mate. It’s kind of a big deal, and people are really funny about not letting scientists say “We want to know what color eyes your children will have if you have sex with this woman, so please hop up on the table and get ‘er done.” Fruit flies are much more prolific than people too, so you can see a much clearer picture. If man x and woman y have sex for the purposes of evaluating a phenotopic result, you are statistically not terribly likely to get more than one or two children. Fruit fly ladies can do a hundred in a day. And where human babies take approximately nine months in the mommy to develop and then years to reach adulthood, fruit flies do it in around 10 days (assuming it’s kept at room temperature). The end result there is you can actually study generations of fruit flies efficiently. With people, it’s a whole lot less timely.
Oh, and now you’re thinking “But Jim, fruit flies can’t be too similar to us, can they? How much can we really learn about human genetics from fruit flies?” Well, you’re partly right. We have 23 chromosomes, and they have 4. Evolutionarily, we’re pretty far removed. However, as Wikipedia tells us, “About 75% of known human disease genes have a recognizable match in the genetic code of fruit flies, and 50% of fly protein sequences have mammalian homologs.” In English, that means that we’ve got quite a few striking similarities in this area, and thus our findings may well be entirely transferable.
And the things we’ve learned about genetics through better understanding reproduction and inheritance in fruit flies and other ZOMG THATS NOT PPL cells has been incredible. Remember your high school genetics class? Well, it’s a little more complicated than that. Alfred Sturtevant, while working with fruit flies, figured out that the distance between two alleles on the chromosome was relevant, and through his work came up with the first chromosome map. The results of Sturtevant’s research were massive, and all thanks to fruit flies. And this work of his came through looking at several generations of properly controlled fruit fly matings, noting that the numbers were significantly different than what Mendel would have predicted, and trying to understand why.
For more on this, I’d direct you to this video called Inside The Fly Lab, which is a presentation about flies from the Caltech lab.
Ms. Palin is an idiot, admittedly. However, I think most people don’t understand why this kind of research is so important. So now you know!