Fly Swatter

The scientific community reacts to Palin's knock on fruit fly research During her first address on Congressional policy in Pittsburgh last...

The scientific community reacts to Palin's knock on fruit fly research

During her first address on Congressional policy in Pittsburgh last week, Republican vice-presidential hopeful Sarah Palin flippantly cited fruit fly research as an example of over-the-top government spending. She asserted that Congressional "earmarks" could be better used for funding more important things-such as the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), which sets guidelines for the education of children with special needs. (It's been widely reported that Palin's newborn son has Down syndrome.) When deriding the defenseless flies, Palin punctuated her statement with one of her trademark chuckles and an "I kid you not." (See a video of Palin's full speech below.)She probably didn't anticipate the wrath it would incur from the scientific community.Quoth the outspoken biologist P.Z. Meyers, on his blog Pharyngula: "This idiot woman, this blind, shortsighted ignoramus, this pretentious clod, mocks basic research and the international research community."All that vitriol? Over fruit flies?Absolutely. By now, the entire science blogosphere has rushed to defend fruit flies (or Drosophila melanogaster) as workhorses of biological research--fundamental to the study of autism, among other things. (Autism, incidentally, is one of the disabilities covered by IDEA.) In order to get the research community's perspective on Palin's gaffe, I spoke to Hugo Bellen, a geneticist at the Baylor College of Medicine in Houston, Texas. Bellen uses fruit flies in his work on the peripheral nervous system-which wires the limbs and organs to the central nervous system (the brain and spinal cord).What was your lab's reaction to Gov. Palin's comments? We've been flooded with emails. I'm not sure if Sarah Palin understands what the implications are of her statements. There are probably close to ten thousand people working on fruit flies because they're such great models to study all kinds of biology. Numerous labs use fruit flies to study models for human disease and have made some major contributions to our understanding of the mechanisms by which these diseases occur.What about fruit flies makes them so ideal for research?They're fast breeders. They're cheap to work with. They're extremely easy to manipulate--I think they're currently the organisms that have the most tools available for sophisticated manipulation. You can essentially remove a gene in a single cell, or you can add a gene in a single cell. You can modify essentially at will. Because of that, and because through evolution all the genes are conserved, you can put mouse genes and human genes in flies and they'll work just fine. You can manipulate the system to a level of sophistication where you can ask very complex questions, and you can ask them at a relatively low cost, and [get them answered] fast.So, you would obviously say that government funding of fruit fly research projects is money well spent, right? Yes, and this is generally recognized in the scientific community. The National Institutes of Health currently support more than 600 major fruit fly research projects that have lead to numerous discoveries related to cancer, neurological diseases, neurodegenerative diseases, hearing issues, blindness, genetic diseases, and [defects at] child birth. The Nobel Prize for Physiology and Medicine in 1995 was awarded to [Christiane] Nüsslein-Volhard, [Eric] Wieschaus, and [Edward] Lewis for using fruit flies to discover most of the genes that play a role in early development.So, are there scientific advances that would have been impossible without fruit fly research?I would not say that. Nothing is impossible. It's just historical. Years ago, Thomas Morgan started working with fruit flies-and I'm sure if it hadn't been fruit flies somebody else would have come up with another organism that is as fast and as good-but it just happened historically that the fruit fly was selected, has expanded, and that so many people have started working with it. There are more tools available for this organism than any other. That's the driving force for doing this research. Without the fruit fly, the study of genetics would have been delayed, and we would not understand a lot of issues as well as we do. But maybe another organism would have taken over. In fact, other organisms have been selected over the last few years.What are some of those other organisms?C. elegans, which is a little worm, has been used a lot and is also a great organism to study basic questions of biology. Zebrafish, which is a small fish that is used more [as a model organism] for vertebrate [animals with a backbone] development. Obviously, mice have been studied for many years. They are the most commonly used organisms-together with fruit flies.[youtube] fly photo from Flickr user Maxx xx)