Have you ever found your fruit bowl teeming with fruit flies that seemed to appear out of nowhere? While pesky at times, these 6-legged, red-eyed insects have endured as a laboratory staple for more than 100 years, helping scientists unlock the genetic causes of human disease.
In a recently published article in the journal Genetics, fruit fly biologists at the Jan and Duncan Neurological Research Institute at Texas Children’s – Drs. Michael Wangler, Shinya Yamamoto and Hugo Bellen – explore the value of fruit fly research and the need for more funding to accelerate biomedical discoveries using the Drosophila fruit fly.
Unlike mouse models, the authors argue that fruit flies are inexpensive to maintain, they grow quickly from embryo to adult in 12 days, and share many similar genes with humans, making the Drosophila a powerful model organism for the study of genetics.
To study human disease in fruit flies, scientists mutate, or disrupt, the same gene that is known or suspected to cause the disease, and then figure out why mutations with this particular gene leads to disease. However, one can also take an unbiased approach and discover new genes.
Inside their laboratory at the NRI, Bellen and his team have performed a large scale forward unbiased genetic screen which allowed them to isolate 165 fruit fly genes that cause neuro-developmental and neuro-degenerative phenotypes when mutated, 90 percent of which have human counterparts. The human counterparts of one third of the genes cause Mendelian disorders. By exploring the remaining two thirds of the genes in patients with rare disease they could identify a few novel human diseases genes, work that they did in collaboration with Drs. Jim Lupski and Richard Gibbs.
A detailed characterization of some of the 165 genes also permitted them to discover novel mechanisms that underlie a variety of known diseases such as the peripheral neuropathy associated with Charcot-Marie-Tooth (2A) disease, Leigh syndrome and some ataxias, including Spinocerebellar Ataxia 6 and Friedreich ataxia.
“By understanding how a particular gene works in the fruit fly, we can dissect the molecular and genetic events that underlie the pathogenesis of human disease so that effective treatments can be developed in the future,” Bellen said.
“We see fruit fly research as an avenue of tremendous importance,” Wangler said. “Federal agencies need to actively encourage collaborative research between fruit fly researchers and human geneticists and clinicians to make the best possible use of dwindling research dollars to promote public health.”
Click here to read their article titled, “Fruit flies in biomedical research,” in the journal Genetics.